An extraterritorial castle

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An extraterritorial castle

Kim Won-bae
The author is a national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

It is ironic that the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who had fought for gender equality at workplaces as a civilian rights lawyer and activist, ended his life shortly after he was accused of sexual harassment.

In January 2012 — three months after his first inauguration in October 2011 — Park announced a vision to ensure equality in workplaces. He was ahead of the times as the code was announced even before the sweeping Me Too movement in Korea two years ago. In 2014, the city administration vowed vigilance against sexual crimes, and in 2018, it trotted out plans to address damages.

But the code did not apply to the secretary office of the mayor. A women’s rights group protecting the victim claimed she had suffered from molesting by the mayor for four years. She sought help within the city government, but was ignored for being “paranoid” as the “mayor was not that type of person.” She was also told that a secretary’s duty was to tend to the needs of the mayor. Both the tragedy of Park and the victim would have been avoided had someone paid heed to her at the early stages.

Breaking the silence Wednesday, the city government promised to establish a joint private-public body to investigate the case. However, the city stopped short of addressing a plethora of questions about the scandal, citing a “need to protect the alleged victim” from secondary injury.

In a letter on Monday, the victim explained how suffocated she had felt by his domineering attitude toward her. The city government went ahead with a five-day public funeral despite 500,000 signatures on a Blue House petition opposing a city-administered public funeral for someone accused of a sex crime. If the city had cared so much about casting secondary harm to the victim, it would not have gone through with the elaborate public funeral process.

The city only responded after the victim’s supporters filed charges with the prosecution, as the mayor may have been tipped off about the victim’s criminal action against the mayor since he went missing and later was found dead after the victim finished overnight questioning by the police.

The acting leadership of the Seoul city government must disclose facts about Park’s final decision before the investigation. Given the city government’s nonchalant behavior so far, we can hardly expect a joint investigation team to locate the truth behind the mayor’s suicide. It should be investigated by the prosecution or the police.

At the same time, governance of local governments should be reexamined. A local government has a four-year term and can be extended three times. A long-running administrator can reign over officialdom as he or she has the exclusive power of appointment.

After Park’s death, 27 aides hired by him left the city government. Why he needed so many special aides is bewildering. The recruits may have been discreetly preparing for Park’s bid for the presidency. Other heads of local governments who aspire to run in the next presidential election, may also be running such camps. That’s the same as running election camps with taxes from residents.

Local assemblies must keep their eyes on the heads of their administrations. But the Seoul Metropolitan Council has rarely opposed Park’s plans as the ruling Democratic Party (DP) commands a super majority in the local legislature.

The conservatives won the 2006 local elections. From 2010, however, the liberals won more than two thirds of the seats in local assemblies. After the 2018 municipal elections, DP councilmen occupied 102 out of 110 seats at the Seoul Metropolitan Council. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party has only six and is unable to join the floor, as that requires a minimum of 10 seats. Under Mayor Park’s rule, the Seoul Metropolitan Council was mostly led by DP members. As a result, the local assemblies could not check the city government.

Over-dominance by a certain party in local legislatures cannot help democracy. Any power that has held for so long can become corrupted. There should be a system to prevent it.

In the 2018 municipal elections , the DP won 50.2 percent of votes in Seoul, followed by the Liberty Korea Party (now the United Future Party) at 25.2 percent, Bareunmirae Party at 11.5 percent and the Justice Party at 9.7 percent. If the Seoul Assembly had been formed at a proportional rate, the council would have been much livelier about city policies.

By-elections for the Seoul mayoral post and other openings will be held in April next year. Next municipal elections are scheduled for June 2022.

The fact that there are three openings for the posts of major local government heads after DP members were disgraced as a result of sexual harassment charges should not be taken lightly. The ruling party with 176 seats in the 300-member legislature has the responsibility to fix the distortions and loopholes in the local government system.
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