SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Authorities searched on Thursday for the mayor of South Koreaâ€™s capital, Seoul, who vanished amid sexual harassment allegations after giving his daughter a message that she described as sounding like a will, police said.
Police said they were looking for Mayor Park Won-soon in wooded hills stretching across northern Seoul where his cellphone signal was last detected. They said the phone was currently turned off.
His daughter called police on Thursday afternoon and said her father had given her â€œa will-likeâ€ verbal message before leaving their home hours earlier. The daughter didnâ€™t explain the contents of the message, said an officer at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency who was responsible for the search operation.
His daughter said she decided to call police because she couldnâ€™t reach her father on the phone, the officer said, requesting anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media about the matter.
Kim Ji-hyeong, a Seoul Metropolitan Government official, said Park did not come to work on Thursday for unspecified reasons and had canceled all of his schedule, including a meeting with a presidential official at his Seoul City Hall office.
The reason for Parkâ€™s disappearance wasnâ€™t clear. The Seoul-based SBS television network reported that one of Parkâ€™s secretaries had lodged a complaint with police on Wednesday night over alleged sexual harassment such as unwanted physical contact that began in 2017. The SBS report, which didnâ€™t cite any source, said the secretary told police investigators that an unspecified number of other female employees at Seoul City Hall had suffered similar sexual harassment by Park.
MBC television carried a similar report.
Both the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and Parkâ€™s office said they couldnâ€™t confirm the reports.
Police officer Lee Byeong-seok told reporters that Park was last identified by a security camera at 10:53 a.m. at the entrance to the hills, more than six hours before his daughter called police to report him missing.
About 600 police and fire officers using drones searched unsuccessfully for hours Thursday evening. Fire officer Jeong Jin-hyang said rescuers were using dogs to search dangerous areas on the hills, and helicopters would be deployed Friday morning if Park were not found overnight.
Park, 64, a longtime civic activist and human rights lawyer, was elected Seoul mayor in 2011. He became the cityâ€™s first mayor to be voted into a third term in June last year. A member of President Moon Jae-inâ€™s liberal Democratic Party, he has been considered a potential presidential candidate in 2022 elections.
Park has mostly maintained his activist colors as mayor, criticizing what he described as the countryâ€™s growing social and economic inequalities and corrupt ties between large businesses and politicians.
As a lawyer, he was credited for winning the countryâ€™s first sexual harassment conviction. He has also been an outspoken critic of Japanâ€™s colonial-era policies toward Korea, including the mobilization of Korean and other women as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.
Park also established himself as a fierce opponent of former conservative President Park Geun-hye and openly supported the millions of people who flooded the cityâ€™s streets in late 2016 and 2017, calling for her ouster over a corruption scandal.
Park Geun-hye, a daughter of late authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee, was formally removed from office in March 2017 and is currently serving a decades-long prison term on bribery and other charges.
Seoul, a city of 10 million people, has been a new center of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea since the country eased its rigid social distancing rules in early May. Authorities are struggling to trace contacts amid surges in cases linked to nightclubs, church services, a huge e-commerce warehouse and door-to-door sellers in Seoul.
Park Won-soon has led an aggressive anti-virus campaign, shutting down thousands of nightspots and banning rallies in major downtown streets.