Park Won-soon, Mayor of Seoul, South Korea
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Mayor of the Month for April 2015
Mayor of Seoul, South Korea
By Tann vom Hove
16 April 2015: No sooner was Park Won-soon elected Mayor of Seoul in October 2011, than he was touted as a potential presidential contender. In a country where industrial conglomerates and entrenched political parties largely determine who moves to prominence and who remains anonymous, it was an extraordinary achievement for the independent, anti-establishment Park Won-soon to defeat the ruling conservative party’s most prominent female member of the South Korean parliament. During his campaign, Park, a human rights-lawyer and philanthropist, coined the phrase of the ‘listening mayor’, an approach to government that would colour all activities of his administrations. Any speculation, that Park would immediately use his prominence to aim for higher office were put at rest when, during his first term, he declared his intention to run for re-election.
• Park Won-soon: The human rights lawyer
• Park Won-soon: The Mayor
Park Won-soon: The human rights lawyer
Having grown up in poverty, Park Won-soon became politically active as a student at the Seoul National University in the mid-1970s. There he joined groups of university activists who were opposed to the authoritarian regime of General Park Chung-hee. During 1974 and 1975 the regime arrested and jailed hundreds of student dissidents who protested against President Park’s rule by emergency decrees. Park Won-soon was among those arrested and sent to prison for four months.
Mayor Park described his time in prison as a wake-up call. He used his incarceration to read, study and meditate and later said that his time in prison was a happy and productive period because it allowed him to formulate life goals.
After prison, Park resumed his studies and passed the bar exam. He worked for one year in the public prosecutor’s office before establishing himself as a human rights lawyer. During the 1980s, he made a name for himself as a tireless defender of prisoners of conscience, students and artists and was the first South Korean lawyer to defend women from sexual harassment at the workplace. At that time, in working environments run and dominated by corporate males, little heed was given to women’s complaints against abuse by co-workers and bosses.
His work for those who were at best neglected but more often exploited by South Korea’s powerful conglomerates (chaebols) made Park Won-soon realise that the country needed citizenship more than anything else. In 1994, he, together with some like-minded friends, founded the watchdog organisation People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and Human Rights (PSPD). The organisation, whose founding aims were to monitor government activities and fight political corruption, was, in 2004, given special consultative status with the UN’s Economic and Social Council.
In 2002, Park Won-soon resigned his post at the PSPD to run the Beautiful Foundation, an organisation that aims to build a more just and equitable society. In a country where charities are largely unknown, it wanted to give people the ability ‘to feel wonderful and beautiful’ by donating to its cause. Under Park’s leadership the Beautiful Foundation grew to one of the largest non-profits in South Korea. In 2002, the foundation launched the Beautiful Stores, a chain of charity shops modelled after Britain’s Oxfam shops.
Park Won-soon was asked to serve on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which the government set up in 2005 to investigate atrocities committed under Japanese rule from 1910 to the end of World War II, during the Korean War (1950 to 1953) and during the country authoritarian rule until 1993, when the country elected its first civilian president.
In 2006, Park founded the Hope Institute, an offshoot of the Beautiful Foundation. The think tank was designed to promote solutions to social, educational, environmental and political problems. It describes itself as a ‘think and do tank’ which is operated by the strength and support of 10,000 citizens. It has put forward ideas to strengthen rural and local regions and provided educational programmes for political leaders. One of the early initiatives of the Hope Institute was to help retired citizens to start a ‘life of service’. Park said the institute helped retired professionals play proper roles in society by directing their experience and wisdom to various service organisations and non-profit groups. “We help senior citizens lead more fruitful lives as well as contribute to producing national income.” Park told City Mayors that the Hope Institute had established the profession of ‘social designer’.
Park Won-soon: The Mayor
Park Won-soon, the listening mayor, has made listening and soliciting input from citizens a cornerstone of his administrations. To emphasise his sincerity he has placed a big-ear sculpture outside the newly built City Hall. The giant Red Ear is always listening. Citizens are invited to walk up to the sculpture to ‘speak their mind’. The messages are recorded and then transmitted inside of City Hall, where they are broadcast through citizens' affairs bureau over loudspeakers. The Mayor told City Mayors anyone can come to the new City Hall and speak up. “People’s comments will be delivered to the relevant government officers."
Park’s administration also selects one-day citizen mayors and honorary deputy mayors from all sections of Seoul’s society. “Young people, senior citizens, disabled people are appointed so we can listen to them and understand their concerns,” the Mayor explained. Critics have claimed that the Mayor’s insistence on listening and learning has slowed down his administration but he points out that if City Hall listens to all the arguments before decisions are made there will be fewer disagreements afterwards. “Seoul has become much less confrontational. The number of demonstrations outside City Hall has dropped dramatically as a result of our listening and deliberations.”
Social media plays an important role in Mayor Park’s ‘naked government’. More than 900,000 followers on Twitter are invited to listen, argue and suggest. The Mayor said he listened with sincerity in order to listen well. But people can only participate when they have the right information. As part of its naked-government programme, the Seoul municipality makes all information public by default, unless it poses a threat to security, stability and privacy. In an interview, the Mayor cited previous administrations who had failed to listen and consult when they ordered the demolition of many historic sites to make way for modernisation. “Urged on by public demand, we are now desperately trying to protect historic buildings in our effort to encourage tourism.”
At the launch of Park Won-soon’s second term in office, on 1 July 2014, six ‘citizen mayors’ - including a social worker, a university student, a teacher and a designer - delivered inaugural speeches. The citizen mayors, who were selected through a competition, promised in their addresses to work among other things for safety on public transport and improved welfare for elderly and disabled people. After their speeches, Mayor Park promised that he would honour the pledges of the citizen mayors.
Mayor Park has identified Seoul’s shrinking and ageing population as one of the major problems of the city. Seoul's population has been declining for a few years as childbirth rates remain very low. In 2011, the population shrunk by almost 200,000. In February 2014, Seoul’s population dropped below 10 million for the first time in 25 years. It had breached the 10-million mark in 1998 and once was close to 11 million.
In 2013, people over 60 accounted for 16.6 per cent of Seoul's population, up from 14.6 per cent in 2010. The number of elderly people over 65 surpassed a million in late 2010 and is expected to exceed two million by 2027. By contrast the number of people between 20 and 40 is shrinking. The proportion of people in their 20s fell from 15.4 per cent to 14.4 per cent over the same period, and in their 30s fell from 18.1 per cent to 17.4 per cent. The 40-something age bracket stagnated at 17 per cent.
A decline in the number of economically active people is weakening the productivity of the South Korean capital. According to Statistics Korea, Seoul's gross regional domestic product growth peaked at 15 per cent in 1995, but fell to two per cent in 2012. This was lower than Korea's GDP growth rate of 2.8 per cent last year, demonstrating that the capital city is no longer serving as a growth engine for the country's economy.
In a speech recently delivered at Stanford University, Mayor Park openly admitted that Seoul had the lowest birth rate of any large city in the world. The city also has one of the world’s highest suicide rates. He said it was one of his prime duties to encourage people to get married and provide them with an environment in which they would be happy to bring up children. “In global mega cities like Seoul, but also in Hong Kong, London and New York, young people live to work and have often lost the ability to enjoy life. We must make our citizens happy again.”
South Korea also has had the highest suicide rate in the industrialised world for eight consecutive years. In 2012, Korea’s rate was 28 suicides per 100,000 people, more than twice the average of 12.5 for OECD member countries. Some 14,160 people committed suicide in 2012, an average of 39 people per day and a 119 per cent increase from the 6,444 suicides in 2000. It’s the number 1 cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 30. For people in their 40s, suicide is the second most common cause of death, after cancer. Among the older generations, the numbers are even bleaker.
The City of Seoul runs various anti-suicide programmes including counselling services and hotlines set up at preventing suicides. It hopes to half the number of suicides by 2020.
The Mayor’s reputation as a civil rights advocate took a knock at the end of 2014, when the metropolitan government decided not to go ahead with the Seoul Charter of Human Rights. The charter, which was proposed by the city government in August 2014 to raise awareness about human rights, included among others a clause that stated a person “has the right not to be discriminated against based on his or her sexual orientation or sexual identity.” This particular clause caused outrage among many conservative Christian groups.
While in October 2014, Mayor Park told a US newspaper that he personally supported same-sex marriage, his administration issued a statement two months later saying that “unfortunately the charter has been creating social conflicts rather than social cohesion.” The charter was planned to be enacted on 10 December, the annual Human Rights Day, which was proclaimed by the UN in 1950.
In country, that has not yet fully accepted gays and lesbians - a study by the Asian Insitute for Policy Studies found that 78 per cent of Koreans expressed unease about homosexuality - Mayor Park’s decision to ‘cave in’ to anti-gay groups has been described as an indication that he after all plans to run for the presidency and does not want to offend public opinion.
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