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Park Won-soon’s Suicide Might Destabilize Moon’s Foreign-Policy Agenda

Sexual abuse allegations have wide implications in South Korea’s Democratic Party.

Mourners carry a portrait of late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon during his funeral service at Seoul City Hall on July 13.
Mourners carry a portrait of late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon during his funeral service at Seoul City Hall on July 13. Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

The death of the South Korean human rights lawyer and potential presidential contender Park Won-soon by suicide last week has rocked the country, especially after it emerged that he was facing serious accusations of sexual abuse. Park was serving his third term as mayor of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and, as a close ally of President Moon Jae-in, he was the face of South Korea’s technocratic competence in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Park had become a prominent figure in coverage of national success in curbing the disease.

Park’s former secretary has accused him of four years of sexual abuse and harassment. Her claim is likely to go uninvestigated due to a South Korean law that prohibits the indictment against a deceased suspect. But the allegations raise serious questions about his legacy as a “people’s champion” and a women’s rights advocate. Furthermore, the allegations of sexual misconduct by Park could jeopardize his ally Moon’s foreign-policy agenda that prioritizes diplomacy with North Korea and strives toward a more equal relationship with the United States in the long run.

The death of the South Korean human rights lawyer and potential presidential contender Park Won-soon by suicide last week has rocked the country, especially after it emerged that he was facing serious accusations of sexual abuse. Park was serving his third term as mayor of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and, as a close ally of President Moon Jae-in, he was the face of South Korea’s technocratic competence in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Park had become a prominent figure in coverage of national success in curbing the disease.

Park’s former secretary has accused him of four years of sexual abuse and harassment. Her claim is likely to go uninvestigated due to a South Korean law that prohibits the indictment against a deceased suspect. But the allegations raise serious questions about his legacy as a “people’s champion” and a women’s rights advocate. Furthermore, the allegations of sexual misconduct by Park could jeopardize his ally Moon’s foreign-policy agenda that prioritizes diplomacy with North Korea and strives toward a more equal relationship with the United States in the long run.

Since Park’s death, Western media has largely focused on his presidential potential rather than how his passing could affect South Korea’s foreign policy, even though the consequences there may be very real. Moon’s pursuit of peace on the Korean Peninsula and his desire to strengthen South Korea’s autonomy align with the United States’ long-term strategic interests in the region. It benefits the United States to have strong, democratic nations such as South Korea handle their own security. April legislative election results showed strong support for Moon to pursue a progressive domestic agenda and foreign policy. As the president enters the final two years of his term, attention has naturally shifted to his potential successors.

Among potential 2022 presidential candidates, Park Won-soon’s political profile was among the strongest. There are several reasons for this. First, he was the longest-serving mayor of Seoul. He came to office in 2011 and won a third and last term in 2018, the first in Seoul’s history. Secondly, Park enjoyed national prominence as a human rights lawyer long before he was mayor of South Korea’s largest city. During the 1980s, Park helped win the conviction of a police officer who assaulted a female student activist during an interrogation. In 1998, Park won South Korea’s first sexual harassment case.

Finally—and perhaps most significantly—Park became synonymous with administrative competence and innovation during the handling of the coronavirus. It started in March when Park sued leaders of the secretive religious group Shincheonji Church of Jesus that was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea. Park received international praise for the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s efforts, which slowed the spread of the disease through contact-tracing and emergency text alerts. Park attributed the low infection and death rate to these techniques and offered help in “supporting the international community in overcoming this pandemic.”

To be sure, Park’s candidacy for presidency in 2022 was something of a long shot. Indeed, Seoul mayorship is not traditionally a stepping stone to the Blue House. Out of 12 former presidents of South Korea, only two were previously mayors of Seoul before taking office: Yun Bo-seon (1960-1962) and Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013).

Presidential polls can be tricky to interpret this far in advance, but recent surveys showed Park trailing behind other potential candidates. According to the monthly polls conducted by Realmeter, former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon has been polling at the top for the past six months, not Park. The mayor’s hometown, which plays an important part in South Korean politics, would also have been unusual for the Democratic Party. He is from southern Gyeongsang province, home to South Korea’s conservative base, whereas Lee is from the Honam region, home to the liberal Jeolla provinces and the party’s stronghold.

Park’s alleged sexual abuse against his former secretary—particularly in light of two other equally disturbing sexual assault scandals involving the mayor of Busan and governor of South Chungcheong—is extremely damaging to the mayor’s legacy as a public servant. Indirectly, it could also spell trouble for Moon Jae-in’s administration in the remaining two years of his term.

Issues related to gender equality have traditionally divided South Koreans regardless of which political party is in power. Progress in this area has been slow, despite the #MeToo movement that reached South Korea in 2018. The gender earnings gap is the highest in South Korea of all OECD countries. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, South Korea ranks 79th in political empowerment, behind the United Arab Emirates and Romania.

The fact that progress has been so incremental hurts the Democratic Party, because it had pledged to do better than conservatives. Moon had campaigned on the promise of being a “feminist president” who would make South Korean society safer for women. He pledged to fill at least 30 percent of his cabinet with women, a promise that he fulfilled. Moon’s positions on gender drew strong support from female voters while alienating some young male voters. So the fact that officials from Moon’s party are involved in sexual abuse against women makes a mockery of the president’s efforts.

An immediate consequence of Park’s suicide could be more public awareness about sexual harassment and resolve toward preventing future abuse. As a member of the conservative United Future Party recently said, “I believe the DP, having been more proactive than anyone in the past ‘#MeToo’ wave, would doubtlessly join the efforts to find the truth” of Park’s case. It could also spur calls for more female leaders at the highest levels of South Korean society. So far, among the top 10 likely Democratic Party presidential candidates in 2022, only one is a woman.

A longer-term consequence could be a gradual decline in support for Moon and, by extension, his foreign-policy agenda. According to the Realmeter poll from July 7 (taken before Park’s suicide), Moon’s approval rating is 50 percent. If the president’s party loses the mayoral seats in Seoul and Busan next year, it could be seen as a referendum against the Democratic Party given the size of the voting bloc; voters in the two cities combined represent nearly a fourth of South Korea’s population. A crushing defeat could embolden the opposition party to challenge Moon’s policies, especially in areas that affect the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

A greater focus on women’s issues could also raise uncomfortable questions about U.S. troop presence in South Korea and their impact on women’s safety. As Katharine Moon revealed in her book Sex Among Allies, for decades U.S. and South Korean governments not only tolerated prostitution near U.S. bases but also coordinated efforts to maintain it. Women who are involved with such work are often rendered invisible, making activism around this issue difficult. Yet there is clearly a connection between South Korean women’s rights and the U.S. military presence in South Korea and other allied countries, and how the latter makes it difficult to address the former. As the scholar Moon noted, the “compromised sovereignty of their own governments in relationship with the more powerful U.S. government and military” has resulted in “the compromised rights and dignity of the Korean, Okinawan, Filipina and other women who ‘serviced’ American military (male) personnel.”

Ultimately, it is in the United States’ long-term interest for allies to manage their own affairs rather than be subject to the whims of Washington policymakers. This need is even more pronounced in the era of a global pandemic, where America’s inability to control the coronavirus has cast serious doubts about the United States’ global leadership. The question is whether Park’s suicide will inadvertently empower an ideological shift away from a South Korea-first foreign policy toward a U.S.-dominant, militarized foreign policy of the past .

Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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