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The apparent suicide of Seoul’s mayor has exposed rifts in President Moon Jae-in’s progressive camp between an old guard wanting to honor one of their own and a younger generation looking to steer clear of someone suspected of sexual harassment.

The official mourning for Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who died last week, has also turned into a soul-searching period for Moon’s liberal base as it assesses whether he’s lived up to his pledge to be a “feminist president.”

Park, who became a progressive hero for winning a landmark sexual harassment case as a lawyer years ago, had one of his former secretaries file charges against him last week for what she said was inappropriate physical contact and obscene messages and images sent to her phone.

Park, who was seen as a potential candidate to succeed Moon in 2022 from within their ruling Democratic Party, is the third prominent member of the progressive camp under Moon to face sexual assault or harassment allegations after former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don and Ahn Hee-jung, the ex-governor of South Chungcheong.

While the conservative opposition has condemned the mayor’s behavior, some members in Moon’s progressive camp have also joined in. A few prominent young lawmakers — including Justice Party members Ryu Ho-jeong and Jang Hye-yeong — have expressed sympathy for the woman, who said she underwent years of abuse.

The ruling party didn’t offer comments about the allegations against Park during a meeting Tuesday led by its floor leader in the National Assembly.

Moon has made little progress in advancing women in government or in company life since taking office. South Korean women overall are paid 32 percent less than their male colleagues, the biggest gender gap among the member countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The frustration over gender issues comes as more South Koreans say that Moon is out of touch with the problems they face in finding affordable housing. Moon’s approval rating fell last week to its lowest level in four months, with many respondents blaming his government for not doing enough to rein in soaring real estate prices.

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads
A demonstrator holds a sign that reads “MeToo, we change the world” during an International Women’s Day rally in Seoul on March 8, 2019. | BLOOMBERG

South Korea’s #MeToo movement grew in 2018 after a flurry of headline-grabbing accusations ignited calls for overhauling one of the world’s worst workplaces for women. But it lost momentum after that.

The progressive camp faces long-term harm if it doesn’t address the difficulties women face in South Korea’s male-dominated society, according to Kim Man-hum, president of the Korean Academy of Politics and Leadership.

“Failure in tackling such issues proactively would do more damage to the progressives overall,” Kim said. “The ruling party must move away from such an arrogant attitude, and pay attention to some of the criticisms around it. It would reach a limit, if it doesn’t.”

After authorities closed the investigation against Park following his death, his accuser said Monday that she wanted him to judged by the law after being harassed for about four years. “I wanted to be protected by a fair and equal law in order to protect myself, someone who was powerless and weak facing a huge authority,” the woman, who did not release her name, said in the statement.

A man holds a portrait of late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon as mourners leave Seoul City Hall after his official funeral on Monday. | AP
A man holds a portrait of late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon as mourners leave Seoul City Hall after his official funeral on Monday. | AP

Although the woman has won support, she has also faced threats from people who have said she made false claims and vowed to track her down, Yonhap News Agency reported.

The Seoul mayor was found dead following a massive police search after he was reported missing Friday, police said, adding he was the subject of an undisclosed investigation. Park, who had been mayor of the city of about 10 million people since 2011, was discovered just after midnight on Friday by a rescue dog near a trail along a fortress wall in a mountainous area overlooking Seoul.

In a note his staff said was left behind on his desk, Park offered his apologies. “I thank everyone who was with me in my life. I apologize to my family for only making them suffer from pain,” his office said. “Goodbye everyone,” it read. On Monday, Park’s supporters gathered in the rain for a funeral that was broadcast over the internet.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made little progress in advancing women in government or in company life since taking office. | BLOOMBERG
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made little progress in advancing women in government or in company life since taking office. | BLOOMBERG

Some older progressives in Moon’s camp have ripped into those who brought up the allegations. One lawmaker, Jin Seong-jun, said Monday that “fully buying the claim against Park is an act of defamation.” Lee Hae-chan, the head of the ruling party, lambasted a reporter last week who asked him to address the sexual harassment claims.

On Monday, however, Lee changed his tone in a statement issued by his spokesman, Kang Hoon-sik. The ruling party chief said he “sympathized with the sufferings” and apologized for “how the situation has developed.”

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