For Mayor Park Won-soon, City Hall no place for politics

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For Mayor Park Won-soon, City Hall no place for politics

The Seoul mayorship has long been considered a springboard for advancing into the national presidency, so the mayor’s actions and policies are always closely watched. But Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has said that he is seeking a second term as head of the city and is not thinking about the higher office.

The JoongAng Ilbo sat down with Mayor Park to discuss his term and future plans in the political realm.

Q. Recently, Seoul city government and the central government have been deeply divided over a program on free child care, especially over who should pay for such promises. Some have said you have deliberately provoked the controversy to enhance your political power.

A. Except for the matter of free child care, there have been no conflicts with the central government, and we have been very cooperative. The position of the Seoul mayor is almost always subordinate to the central government. Even nominating one additional director needs to follow the guidelines set by the administration. I have attended many cabinet meetings and told President Park Geun-hye that I share the same vision as her. But the central government unilaterally decided to cover only 20 percent of the budget for universal child care, forcing the rest on the Seoul government. We said that was too much to handle, and suggested the central government cover 40 percent. The request was passed unanimously by the Health and Welfare Committee but was stopped by the Ministry of Strategy and Finance. I tried to reach out to the minister but couldn’t. The government can’t say we’ve been provocative.

Former mayors tried to make their mark by embarking on large-scale projects. What is your principal for running the administration?

Seoul already has a lot of heritage and infrastructure to present and its geographical location is wonderful. The first king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Yi Seong-gye, made it the capital based on its pungsu [Korean geomancy theory]. Seoul is one of the world’s best heritage sites as it is. But we are not properly preserving it.

You’ve also promised not to carry out any big-budget programs intended to leave behind a legacy, rather than serving the public interest. But some criticize your recent decision to create a light-rail transit system as putting showiness ahead of need. What do you think of this?

Not undertaking those programs means not launching civil engineering works for self-important or wasteful purposes. If there is public demand, then engineering work has to be done. The light-rail transit case is a good example of this. It is eco-friendly, public transportation for those who live in poorly equipped public transportation areas. The Seoul city government is well aware that insufficient research on the economic effects and legitimacy of the operation could turn the project into waste, so we are planning on conducting more research before taking action.

Some are skeptical about downtown farming and the photovoltaic project, saying that these are nothing but political placebos for PR purposes.

The city of Seoul aims to take steps to develop its own style, to compete with international cities like New York and Paris. As climate change has become a top global issue, the eco-friendly village of Totnes, a small town in the southwest of the United Kingdom, is gaining fame worldwide. The world is shifting from fossil fuel dependency to sustainable and alternative energy. Energy independence has risen to 5 percent since we started the “One Less Nuclear Plant Movement.”
(Mayor Park has started a “Street of No Cars” project, his plan to build more roads for bicycles, which was released today. Park came up with the idea of a public bicycle lending program from cities like Paris and New York. New York’s City Bike program started in May and, despite an annual fee of $95, gained more than 35,000 users in its first month. A public bicycle lending program, together with light rail, is a core element of Park’s public transportation policy.)

Is having a public bicycle lending program to prevent climate change?

The Seoul government plans to establish 200 bicycle racks and provide 3,000 bicycles in 10 districts, including in the Jongno, Jung and Seodaemun districts. The cost is estimated to 10 billion won [$9.3 million], which will be raised through advertising. It is no longer plausible to build new car-only roads in a city of 10 million people. Seoul is one of the few cities in the world with a downtown overly packed with cars. The center of Seoul, inside the four traditional gates of Dongdaemun, Seodaemun, Namdaemun and Bukdaemun, should be reachable by bicycle or on foot, and that is what the city government aims to do. This will hit three birds with one stone: better public health, improved air quality and a stronger local economy, from more window shopping.

Fierce debate is ongoing over reducing the large-scale redevelopment projects, called “New Towns.”

It is misleading to believe that the New Town policy would create more residences. This belief might have been possible in the 1980s under the Fifth Republic, but we need a new approach. Good examples of city revival initiatives include Village 104 and the Human Town Plan in Yeonnam-dong.

What are some of the most important projects for the coming years?

The city government has a comprehensive development plan for relatively marginalized northeastern districts, in Nowon, Dobong, Gangbuk and Sungbuk. When it comes to the Gangnam area, tourism and the MICE [meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions] industry are at the center of our plan.

Because of our lack of infrastructure, we still have a long way to go before we acquire a reputation comparable with Singapore. Currently the government is working on plans to establish some facilities near COEX and Jamsil Sports Complex.

You are also interested in the conservation of cultural heritage.

Our generation is obliged to preserve our cultural heritage for the next generation. In line with those efforts, heritage preservation projects, such as buying the old house of the renowned composer Yoon Geuk-young, famous for the children’s song “Ban Dal,” is scheduled for next year.

Your success during the by-election for Seoul mayorship in 2011 was greatly attributed to the help by Ahn Cheol-soo, the famous software entrepreneur. What does Ahn mean to you?

Ahn and I agreed that we should take a new political approach, which focuses on people, not the old political standpoint that serves politicians. I believe that this is what the public expects of us.

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