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From legendary activist to longest-serving Seoul mayor, a prominent leader’s life ends abruptly

/ 03:06 PM July 12, 2020

Yonhap via The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

SEOUL — Park Won-soon, 64, left his mark in South Korea’s civic activism as an avid activist and human rights lawyer, even before he was elected Seoul mayor in a 2011 by-election. He was voted to a third term in 2018, becoming the longest-serving mayor of the country’s capital, home to nearly 10 million people.

A member of President Moon Jae-in’s liberal Democratic Party of Korea, Park had been considered a potential presidential candidate in the 2022 election. He had also not been shy in his ambitions to run for the highest office.

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Park’s political career, however, came to an abrupt end as he was found dead Friday in an apparent suicide. It was just two days after a former secretary filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.

Born in 1956 as the sixth child of a poor farmer family in Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, Park was a bookworm who had many dreams in his childhood, he recalled.

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He was kicked out of the prestigious Seoul National University in 1975 for attending a memorial event for a pro-democracy activist, and jailed for four months. He graduated from Dankook University, passed the bar exam in 1980 and started his career as a prosecutor.

Less than a year later, he became a lawyer defending political activists, which he continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s.

As a lawyer, Park defended a woman sexually harassed in the 1990s to win Korea’s very first sexual harassment conviction. He had labeled himself a feminist, publicly advocating for gender equality on many occasions.

His life as a civic activist began in 1994 when he helped launch the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a nongovernmental organization fighting to tackle the country’s social and economic inequalities.

He was also a founding member of an organization of progressive lawyers — Lawyers for a Democratic Society — and the Beautiful Foundation, which promotes community service and fair trade.

As an activist, Park was at the forefront of grassroots movements — from urging voters to reject corrupt politicians to protecting minority stakeholders’ rights infringed upon by corporate interests — vocally representing the marginalized.

As mayor of the capital city, Park put an emphasis on improving the people’s livelihoods, tackling economic inequality and resolving urban problems in a departure from carrying out development-focused projects, which many of his predecessors used to promote their political profile.

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Park openly supported the candlelit protests during which millions of people poured into streets in central Seoul in late 2016 and early 2017 demanding the ouster of President Park Geun-hye over a corruption scandal. The monthslong demonstrations led to the removal of Park from office.

Known for his hardworking and detail-oriented character, the last policy project Park himself announced was a “Green New Deal” initiative seeking to reduce the city’s carbon emissions and generate jobs in the green industry on Wednesday.

“I have driven a quiet revolution in the past years,” Park said at a meeting with reporters on Monday. “It has been time to restore lives and dreams of citizens who had been pushed to the edges of the city.”

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TAGS: Dead Seoul Mayor, Mayor Park Won-soon, obituary, Seoul, South korea, Suicide
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