Asia - Issue 83 - Magazine | Monocle

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Everyday people no. 54

Populists’ choice

Park Won-soon [SEOUL]

In South Korea’s capital the black, chauffeur-driven Hyundai Equus is the unmistakable trademark of a politician of stature. Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, however, has opted to shun the extravagance of his peers. Park’s motorcade – if you can even call it that – is more commonly found in the garages of suburbia: a Kia Grand Carnival. Nearly twice as fuel-efficient as the Hyundai and with seats for 10.3 people, the grey minivan is rarely accompanied by a police escort and is roomy enough for Park’s staff and bodyguard to pile in with him.

Park’s decision to trade in the Equus he inherited from his predecessor for a minivan seems an odd choice for the top official of this city of 9.8 million residents. But it is hardly surprising given his past as a human-rights lawyer and grass-roots defender of the country’s have-nots, and his reputation as a man of the people. Park’s victory in a 2011 by-election (he won re-election last year) was viewed as a challenge to the country’s political establishment and his shunning of the usual perks of his office has won the admiration of voters. Back when the mayor’s official residence in the city’s Hyehwa-dong district was near a subway station he occasionally took public transport to the office. But that’s unlikely now as the official residence has moved and the knife attack on the US ambassador in March also highlighted the need for public figures to be vigilant about security and how they work.

Let there be light


The seventh-largest island in the archipelago, Mindoro usually suffers blackouts in the summer. But from 2016 a €185m geothermal project will give it energy stability and cut prices by around 40 per cent.

New foundations

South Korea [URBANISM]

Seoul’s mayor Park Won-soon (see story, left) is hoping that preserving the city’s architectural heritage can spur growth. His latest project focuses on the Sewoon Sangga: seven mid-rise buildings of apartments and shops designed in the late 1960s by architect Kim Swoo-guen. Back then South Korea was among Asia’s poorest economies and the buildings, covering 1,000 sq m, were a bold statement in urban planning. But over the years the complex lost tenants to newer buildings in other neighbourhoods and city officials considered tearing it down outright. Under Park’s plan the city will spend an estimated €32m on renovations and landscaping.

It is hoped that the improvements – part of a broader effort to make Seoul into a more walkable city – will encourage more creative-sector start-ups and entrepreneurs to set up shop, turning a gritty neighbourhood into a more pleasant place to roam, work and live. “We want to reintroduce the cultural value of these buildings and help revitalise the local economy,” says Lee Chang-gu, a Seoul city government official.

The buffalo roam


Since India’s Maharashtra state banned the possession and sale of beef in March, the country’s courts have backed a crackdown on slaughterhouses. Now farmers worry that buffalo meat could be targeted next. India is the world’s second-largest cattle exporter and most of the livestock that gets shipped overseas is buffalo. Last year buffalo meat sales exceeded €3.7bn, an 11-fold rise from a decade ago. Buffalo aren’t revered in the same way as cows in the largely Hindu country but the intensified attacks on the cattle trade since the nationalist BJP’s rise to power has emboldened right-wing Hindu groups to seek an end to exports.

Friends no more?


Japan and South Korea have plenty in common. For starters: democracy and capitalism. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had previously emphasised that point on its website but in March the ministry removed the passage calling South Korea “an important neighbouring country with which our country shares fundamental values” and replaced it with “most important neighbour”. Neither side would comment on the change but Japanese media reports suggest it reflects Tokyo’s displeasure with South Korea’s decision to indict a Seoul-based Japanese reporter on charges of defaming President Park Geun-hye.

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