Seoul mayor Park Won-soon was found dead early on Friday, police said, in what appears to be one of the country’s highest-profile suicides in recent history.
The body of Park, 64, was found at Mount Bukak, hours after he was reported missing.
The exact cause of his death remained under investigation.
Park’s daughter filed a police report at 5:17pm (0817 GMT) on Thursday that he “had left home four to five hours ago after leaving words like a will, with his phone currently off”.
More than 770 police officers, fire trucks and an ambulance were mobilised to track the whereabouts of Park, searching areas around his home and nearby the temple Gilsangsa in Seoul’s Seongbuk ward, where his cellphone signal was last detected.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government said the mayor did not come to work on Thursday due to health reasons.
In a text message to reporters in the morning, the city government said all events and meetings that Park had been set to attend on Thursday were called off for “unavoidable reasons”.
On Wednesday, Park made a public appearance while holding a press conference on the city’s “Green New Deal” that intends to cut carbon dioxide emissions while creating jobs.
Park left behind a note on his desk at home before his death.
“I’m sorry to everyone. I’m grateful for all the people who I shared my life with,” he wrote in the note, which was revealed upon the bereaved family’s wishes later on Friday. “I have been feeling sorry to my family for I could only give them pain.”
“Please cremate my body and scatter around the graves of my parents.”
Thousands of mourners filled a grassy plaza outside City Hall on Saturday to pay their respects to Park.
Citizens of all ages waited in a long line that snaked around the plaza to pay condolence calls to the memorial altar set up in front of the building.
City officials checked mourners’ temperatures before allowing them to join the line and instructed them to maintain a 1m distance from others in a precautionary measure against the coronavirus. Visitors were also required to write down their names, addresses and phone numbers.
The Seoul Metropolitan City Government said some 2,210 people visited the makeshift altar as of 2:30 pm.
The official funeral site is Seoul National University Hospital, where 3,441 people visited as of 10:30pm on Friday.
People vowed their heads and laid white chrysanthemums in front of Park’s portrait in the altar, which was set up frugally upon the bereaved family’s request.
“The mayor’s death will remain a big loss for the politics and Seoul,” Hong Nam-Ju, 71, who was making his second visit to the mourning site an hour before heading home in Suwon city, Gyeonggi province.
“He was one of my favourite politicians. He pushed for policies that he believed in and people liked the outcomes of his initiatives.”
Park was a renowned civil activist and human rights lawyer who promoted the rights of women and labourers before being elected Seoul mayor in 2011. He was in his third and final term.
He made a public appeal for human-centred policies and equality, such as making efforts to curb soaring housing prices in Seoul and strengthen welfare programmes for the youth as well as the elderly.
A member of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, Park was regarded as a potential presidential candidate for the 2022 election.
But his integrity has been questioned following police confirmation that shortly before his death, one of his former secretaries had filed a claim against him. The nature of the offence has not been disclosed by police but is reportedly sexual.
According to local news reports, the former secretary on Wednesday alleged that Park had made physical contact several times since she began to work with him in 2017. She submitted messages that she had exchanged with Park via the Telegram service to police as evidence.
According to her testimony, there have also been other victims sexually assaulted by the mayor.
Police had planned to call in Park and Seoul government officials for investigations into the case.
Police who examined the body said Park appeared to have killed himself.
Jang Ki-soon, 80, who was standing in a queue at the plaza said: “He did great things as a mayor and a human rights lawyer. He was an uncorrupted man. Those who had bigger faults [than Park] are quite well off.”
A mourner in his mid-20’s, who refused to disclose his name, said he had questions about the allegation against him but came to deplore his death.
The city hall memorial will be open for visitors until 10pm on Monday.
Park is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK