|Residents leave a memorial altar in front of Seoul City Hall, Sunday, after offering their condolences over the death of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon. The Seoul Metropolitan Government plans to hold an online funeral ceremony for the late mayor at 8:30 a.m. Monday amid persisting concerns about the spread of COVID-19. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Public split over evaluation of late Mayor Park, General Paik
By Jun Ji-hye
The recent deaths of two prominent national figures ― Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and Korean War hero Paik Sun-yup ― have seen the emergence of polarized public opinion, focusing society on the deeply dividing and complex issues that the country already faces.
The conflict comes amid different assessments of the lives of the two leaders ― some argue that their accomplishments should be honored, thus they deserve respectful treatment in their funerals; while others claim that people should not overlook the wrongdoings they committed.
Park, a former civic activist and human rights lawyer, and three-term Seoul mayor, had been considered a potential candidate for the 2022 presidential election. But he took his own life Thursday, a day after he was accused of sexual harassment by a female former secretary.
Paik, the South Korea's first four-star general, led the 1st Infantry Division that played a critical role during Korean War in stopping North Korean troops from taking over the entire peninsula. But he was also regarded as a controversial figure due to his "pro-Japanese" activities before the Korean War broke out.
The late mayor, a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), was found dead on a path on Mount Bukak in Seoul at 12:01 a.m. Friday, a few days after his former secretary filed a complaint with police, Wednesday, over alleged sexual harassment since 2017.
Expressing condolences over his sudden death, the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) announced Friday that it would hold a five-day mourning period for Park at Seoul National University Hospital, in accordance with official guidelines, and also place a memorial altar in front of Seoul City Hall for the public to pay their respects.
Immediately after the announcement, some members of the public and politicians raised the question of whether it was appropriate to hold a "public funeral" for the late mayor who faced sexual harassment allegations.
A citizen posted a petition on the website run by the presidential office, Friday, calling on the memorial and funeral service plans to be cancelled.
"Because of Park's death, the police are on course to officially close an investigation of the sexual harassment complaint raised against him before it could even begin," the petitioner wrote.
"Why should citizens watch the lavish five-day funeral of an influential politician who apparently killed himself over the sexual assault allegation? What kind of message do they want to send to the public? I believe Park's funeral service should be held quietly among family members."
The petition has been signed by more than 510,000 citizens as of 1 p.m. Sunday.
Cheong Wa Dae is required to give an official response to a petition that generates more than 200,000 signatures in a month.
Amid a wave of angry comments in online communities, some politicians including Ahn Cheol-soo, head of the minor opposition People's Party, decided not to offer their respects to the late mayor.
"High-ranking officials and leading politicians in this country should take some time for self-examination regarding their behavior," Ahn wrote on Facebook.
On the other hand, there have been many supporters of Park who expressed condolences over his death, paying their respects to his accomplishments.
More than 9,000 residents have visited his memorial alters as of 10 a.m., Sunday, while more than 620,000 have offered condolences at an online memorial run by the SMG.
DPK Chairman Lee Hae-chan said, "The DPK pays tribute to the deceased in honor of his life dedicated to civic rights."
Yoo Yong-hwa, a visiting professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said that what drove Park to kill himself remains unknown, but it is true that many people presume he committed suicide because of pressure following the sexual harassment complaint filed against him.
The professor added that it was also true that Park played many important roles as Seoul mayor for the best part of a decade.
"An objective assessment of what he has done well and what he has done wrong while he was in office should follow after his funeral," Yoo said. "And then, discussions about the victim in the alleged sexual harassment case should also follow to come up with proper countermeasures."
The death of Paik Sun-yup, Friday, has also been causing a confrontation between conservatives and progressives.
While the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs decided to bury his remains at Daejeon National Cemetery, the conservative opposition United Future Party called for him to be buried at Seoul National Cemetery considering his accomplishments.
But the progressive Justice Party claimed Paik should not be buried at any national cemetery, citing controversy over his service in the Gando Special Force, an independent battalion of the Manchuko Imperial Army, a military force which included many pro-Japanese Koreans, that was tasked with suppressing those opposed to imperial Japan's annexation of the Korean peninsula.