City Is All Ears in CyberspaceIt Listens to Gripes by Korean and Foreign Seoulites
Residents and visitors in any city around the globe are bound to have some gripes about their place of abode, and the inhabitants of Seoul are no exception. The "letters to the editor" sections of vernacular dailies and English language newspapers printed here abound with complaints from Koreans and foreigners alike. Even the Internet has not been spared － at one Internet site for foreign residents in Korea, a community called "LISS," short for "Living in Seoul Sucks," has cropped up.
In fact, judging from its past record with the expatriate community, Korea must be one of the worst countries in the world for expatriates to live in. For a number of years now, Korea has rated dismally in an annual report given by the regional think-tank, Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, which evaluates the quality of life in major Asian cities. Last year, more than 500 expatriates living in 12 Asian countries ranked Korea and Vietnam as the worst places to live. They chalked up 6.27 and 6.32 points, respectively, in a scoring system where lower is better. The Philippines came out on top, scoring 3.27, followed closely by Singapore with 3.28 points.
Such a track record cannot go unnoticed and the Seoul Metropolitan Government is finally doing something about it. As the first step towards improving the city's tarnished reputation, last year the city administration hosted the first-ever cyber discussion on issues concerning life in Seoul, inviting both locals and foreigners to participate. The discussions on this internet forum, held September through October in commemoration of Seoul Citizens' Day (October 28), revolved around the issues of transportation, the environment, the 2002 World Cup and medical services, among others.
Through this forum, valuable input from the community was gathered and the 30 most valuable contributions were compiled into a booklet and distributed to the relevant departments within the Seoul Metropolitan Government earlier this month. "This was a really good way to bridge the cultural gap between Koreans and foreigners. Foreigners actually had an official channel through which they were able to air their opinions, while ordinary Seoulites got a chance to hear what foreigner residents really had to say about their city and were able to see suggestions on how Seoul could be improved for everyone," said Lee Ki-hyung, deputy director of North and South American Affairs, Seoul Metropolitan Government.
From the point of view of the foreign participants in the Internet discussion, public transportation services such as buses and the subway need drastic improvements. "The Streets of Seoul," an entry written by Edwin Garcia of the United States, notes that while Seoul has one of the most comprehensive public transportation systems in the world, there are some hurdles the city must overcome if it wishes to improve the quality of life for Seoulites. Pointing out the difficulty in using buses, ("standing" buses and "seated" buses use the same numbers, yet have different destinations) Mr. Garcia's suggested that a comprehensive map of bus routes be made, and subway operation be extended past midnight till 2 a.m.
In "Car Culture," a scathing observation of driving in Seoul, Suzanne Crowder Han of the United States said, "Most agree that on the whole, Koreans tend to drive badly, recklessly and dangerously." She was shocked by the number of illegal activities Korean drivers engage in: passing on curves, cutting across four or five lanes of traffic to make a turn; double parking on busy streets; making U-turns in insanely dangerous places; driving down the wrong side of road towards oncoming traffic; running red lights and going through crosswalks while pedestrians are attempting to cross; speeding in residential areas; and driving and parking on sidewalks were some of the complaints she had. Ms. Han urged Koreans to shed the country's international reputation as a country of reckless drivers, and suggested instituting driver education programs so that the next generation of Korean drivers will drive safely and responsibly.
One participant felt that there was no need to be concerned solely with how to improve things for foreigners. In Kim Yoon-jung's "Back to Basics," Ms. Kim reminds us that the quality of life must improve simultaneously for Koreans and foreigners. This Korean-American graduate student's entry won the grand prize out of all the letters in the cyber discussion; "I think the time has come to stop for a moment on pleasing outsiders and take a good look at the people who live here and the improvements to their lives will be incorporated into a better life for foreigners in Korea," she wrote.
The success of the first cyber discussion has prompted the city administration to establish a "Cyber Monitoring Congress" on its Web site at www.metro.seoul.kr. "We were so encouraged by the first cyber discussion that we've decided to give it more structure," said Mr. Lee.
The cyber congress consists of a 21-member Senate, composed of diplomats, teachers, and lawyers, a 12-member House, made up of foreign winners from last year's discussion, and the gallery which is open to the public.
The congress will be given new issues to consider each quarter. In its first quarter which started on February 1 and goes through to the end of March, the congress has been given the assignment of discussing in detail ways of improving the subway and its service. "The topic for each quarter will be selected from proposals from the various departments within the city administration offices," explained Mr. Lee. Proposals from the discussions will be summarized and forwarded to the relevant departments so that they can be incorporated into future policy planning.
Illustrated by Bae Min-ho
by Kim Hoo-ran