SEOUL -Tears welled up in Ms Yi Bong-mi’s eyes as she stood in line in front of the Seoul city hall, among hundreds of others who turned up on Saturday (July 11) afternoon to pay respects to the late mayor Park Won-soon at a memorial altar.
“He devoted his whole life to the people, fighting for the rights of women and the poor, and doing everything he could for the city and the country,” Ms Yi, a 46-year-old translator, told The Straits Times.
“I never imagined he would kill himself. I was very shocked.”
Office worker Park Son-hwa, 39, brought a basket of flowers for the man she had respected for a long time.
She cited his work as a human rights lawyer in the 1980s and ’90s winning high-profile cases for women, and how he founded non-governmental groups such as the Beautiful Foundation, which promotes philanthropy.
“He had done so much for the people even before he became Seoul mayor,” she told ST. “As mayor, he built the beautiful sky park at Seoul station and had grand plans to overhaul Gwanghwamun Square.”
Office worker Kim Chong-hol, 51, said he voted for the mayor three times – in 2011, 2014 and 2018.
“I came to send off the most excellent mayor and politician,” Mr Kim said. “But I was angry to hear the news. How can he leave at this time when there’s still so much work waiting for him to do? Who can replace him?”
Thousands of people queued patiently on Saturday and waited for their turn to say their last goodbye to Mr Park, wearing face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic and keeping a decent distance from others.
Some of them were seen getting on their knees to give a big bow to the well-liked man who made history as the longest-serving mayor of Seoul.
During his term, Mr Park promoted gender equality, introduced better welfare schemes, and built more green spaces for people to enjoy.
The 64-year-old also put Seoul on the world map, winning international accolades such as the 2018 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize for the city’s innovative urban regeneration projects.
People had widely expected him to run for president next in 2022, little knowing he would choose to end his life so abruptly.
Mr Park’s daughter reported him missing on Thursday evening (July 9), prompting a massive search involving more than 700 officers from the police and fire department. A police dog found his body in the woods of Mount Bugak in northern Seoul early Friday.
It appeared that he had his own life. The police are still investigating the exact cause of death, but have ruled out foul play.
Mr Park left a handwritten goodbye note saying he was sorry and asking for his ashes to be scattered at his parent’s grave.
His death came as a major shock, in the wake of reports that a secretary had filed a sexual harassment report against him the day before he went missing on Thursday.
The case would be closed upon his death, in accordance with the law.
Fellow politicians mourned his sudden departure, sending in condolence messages.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent flowers to Mr Park’s private memorial service held at Seoul National University Hospital.
Mr Moon reportedly recalled how their friendship went back to the 1980s, when they studied together at the Judicial Research and Training Institute and became human rights lawyers before joining the ruling Democratic Party (DP). A yellowed photo of the two of them standing together has also surfaced online.
DP chairman Lee Hae-chan paid tribute to Mr Park’s accomplishments as a human rights lawyer and how he dedicated his life to civic rights.
A spokesman from the minor opposition Justice Party said they are “grief stricken looking back at his career as a civic rights activist”.
However, there are also calls online for the sexual harassment case against Mr Park to be reopened so that justice can be served.
There are also protests against the Seoul city government’s decision to hold a five-day mayoral funeral for him, with critics questioning the need to use public funds for it.
Office worker Ms Park voiced disappointment at the slew of online rumours against Mr Park.
“Now is not the time for a witch hunt,” she said. “We should send him off first and then judge if the case is true or not.”
Translator Ms Yi said she does not believe any of the online chatter. “I hope he will rest in peace,” she added.