Voters in Seoul go to the polls in June to elect a new mayor and the worst-kept secret at city hall is whether the incumbent, Park Won-soon, plans to stand for a third time. Though he hasn’t announced he’s running, Park says it takes a decade to affect real change. A simple calculation leaves the former human-rights lawyer, who first entered office in 2011, in need of another four years.
Another win would mean that the popular liberal mayor – party comrade of president Moon Jae-in – would see his final term conveniently end right before the next presidential election, due in 2022. Park is known to harbour ambitions to move to the presidential Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae) and running Seoul city hall is a proven springboard (he briefly considering running in 2016 but the unexpected ousting of former president Park Gyun-hye saw the election cycle come around too quickly).
Whether he runs or not, the outsider mayor has ushered in a fresh approach to local politics and is driving change in South Korea’s car-crazy capital. His policy of renovating existing infrastructure has visibly enhanced quality of life by transforming road bridges into pedestrian walkways, disused railway lines into horizontal parks and decommissioned oil storage tanks into culture centres. He has also raised Seoul’s profile on the global stage, taking leadership of international forums and appointing prominent foreigners as ambassadors.
Six years into the job, the 61-year-old workaholic is not nearly done; his office of a Friday afternoon is a conveyor belt on voters and visitors. It’s an exercise in Park’s raison d’être: participatory democracy. Behind his desk is a recently installed hi-tech video wall. The display – part of an ongoing project – shows him real-time data about the city, such as house fires and traffic jams. An air-pollution spike earlier in the week prompted Park to offer free public transport to discourage car use. George Orwell’s 1984 dystopia has come true, he jokes, as he mentions putting in a request for a drone that he can pilot from the roof of city hall. But Park’s vision is of a utopian city where residents have complete access to information, a full say in every aspect of how they are governed and a hand in seeing campaign promises delivered.
Monocle: How would you rate your progress after six years at city hall?
Park Won-soon: There’s clearly a big change in terms of the quality of life of our citizens as I have tried to convert a car-oriented civilisation into a pedestrian-friendly and eco-friendly city. For example, we planted 12 million trees across Seoul and we had the “one less nuclear power plant” project [an effort to reduce energy consumption in the city by two million toes: a unit of energy that is equivalent to the capacity of a nuclear power plant]. We actually reduced energy consumption by the equivalent of two nuclear power plants. Seoul citizens happily co-operated with our vision and campaigns so this city is well mobilised and really is becoming a participatory democratic society.
M: Why do you prefer smaller alterations to the existing urban architecture as opposed to grand infrastructure projects?
PW-S: Since my inauguration, every politician has put pressure on me to do one big project – but I rejected it. The quality of life of ordinary citizens is composed of very trivial, very small things. And through an accumulation of small things, a big revolutionary change can come about. The process will take a little bit longer because every Seoul Metropolitan Government policy is decided by the citizens, not bureaucrats. But the eventual decision will be made stronger because of this empowerment.
M: Sustainable energy generation is your next project. What can it realistically achieve?
PW-S: Solar City Seoul 2022 is one of the new projects we initiated. [After reducing energy consumption] the aim now is for the city to produce one nuclear power plant’s worth of energy and it means we have to establish solar-panel systems on one million houses, so it’s essential for citizens to participate. I want every home to be a power plant with a hot-water panel on the top floor or veranda – and I know we can be successful.
M: What’s participatory democracy like in practice?
PW-S: Citizens’ participation cannot be built in one day. It takes much more time. As a long-time activist I have been cultivating a participatory culture in our democracy and among our citizens. I targeted the existing bureaucratic system just after my inauguration and I’m always asking our staff to provide the space for citizens to be involved and to participate in the decision process. Nowadays, I can say that every policy is exposed to citizens in some form, from how to spend the budget to shaping urban regeneration projects – even though it often involves a dispute or debate.
M: You collect a lot of data, as well as listening to what people have to say. Which one is the most persuasive?
PW-S: Both are important. I really want more opportunities to get in touch with citizens and get their feedback offline. At the same time, online we are providing many spaces to be heard. Recently we opened Democracy Seoul, which provides an online platform so every citizen can submit their own ideas and policies, and then discuss and decide. We got the insight from Decide Madrid and other experiments around the world, so it’s clearly a change of the political culture.
M: Now that president Moon Jae-in is experimenting with participatory democracy through deliberative polls, can you claim to have changed the nature of national politics?
PW-S: Central politics is a little bit far removed from local government so I still think it has a long way to go. But it will be expanded someday because of these local government experiments and success stories.
M: Is it helpful to have a fellow liberal politician as president?
PW-S: Yes, of course. I was actually cracked down upon under the last two [conservative] presidents. The Korean cia was targeting me so it was a really difficult time [Park accused the National Intelligence Service of conducting illegal surveillance and smearing his reputation during the presidency of Lee Myung-bak, which ended in 2013]. But now we have a new president who has a very similar vision and political career to mine. We both graduated from the same judiciary training school and for a long time we also had the same career as human-rights lawyers, opposing the dictator government.
M: Could Mayor Park one day become President Park?
PW-S: Seoul city hall is very near to the president’s house but making the journey there is not easy. I cannot say I would like to be a president but doing a good job as mayor means I can [become popular with] the citizens – and then in future I will consider it.
Mayor Park’s projects:
Reviving a disused 1970s flyover, Seoul’s 1km-long pedestrian walkway features cafés and a market, as well as 24,000 plants arranged according to the Korean alphabet.
Plans to demolish this 1960s shopping megastructure were scrapped in favour of a regeneration project, focused on developing pedestrian pathways.
In 2014, the popular nightlife area became Seoul’s first transit mall: a zone restricted to pedestrians, bicycles and public transport.
Gyeongchun Line Railroad Forest Regeneration Project
The disused railway line has been transformed into a pedestrian park with forest trails and bike paths.