[INTERVIEW] Oh Se-hoon wants to spiff up Seoul with Ferris wheel, art on the Han

Home > National > Social Affairs

print dictionary print

[INTERVIEW] Oh Se-hoon wants to spiff up Seoul with Ferris wheel, art on the Han

Oh Se-hoon, mayor of Seoul, speaks during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Aug. 12 at Seoul City Hall. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Oh Se-hoon, mayor of Seoul, speaks during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Aug. 12 at Seoul City Hall. [PARK SANG-MOON]

To put Seoul on a par with New York City, London, and Paris, Mayor Oh Se-hoon has some lofty ambitions. One is the world's tallest Ferris wheel offering views over the Han River.
Oh thinks the Korean capital can become one of the top five global cities. His rallying slogan for the vision doesn't translate into very stirring English — "Attractive Seoul" — but it's behind some very big goals. One is to attract 30 million tourists a year from across the globe. Another is to draw investors from cutting edge industries and create a new Silicon Valley in Asia.
In early August, the Seoul city government announced a project called the Great Sunset Han River, which includes tourist attractions to be built such as large floating stages and waterfront sculptures. One will be the world's tallest observation wheel, larger than the London Eye or the Singapore Flyer.
A former rail yard in central Seoul is to be developed into an international business zone with commercial buildings, residences, hotels, an e-sport complex and cultural facilities. The area will be the first in Seoul to be designated as a minimal regulation zone, possibly allowing the construction of skyscrapers higher than the 123-story Lotte World Tower. 
Last February, the capital launched Invest Seoul, the city government’s own investment promotion agency, to raise foreign direct investment (FDI) to $30 billion a year by 2030, double that of 2021.
The mayor’s proposals for Seoul also include offering housing at lower prices for expatriates and creating more foreign schools, as well as cutting corporate and income taxes.
Oh sat down with Cheong Chul-gun, CEO of the Korea JoongAng Daily, on Aug. 12 at Seoul City Hall to talk about his vision for Seoul.
Below are edited excerpts of the interview.
Q. In your definition, what is an "attractive" city? What is the unique attractiveness of Seoul?

A. An attractive city is a city where people want to come to live, work and enjoy.
First of all, it is a city with an enhanced residential environment. Compared to countries abroad, the public transportation system in Seoul is already very cheap, clean, punctual, convenient, and well-connected — and I feel there is nothing more to improve.
Next, it is a city where people want to come to work. We need to work on creating a business environment where companies can come and also bring in people. We ourselves have to make efforts, of course, but cooperation with the central government is also needed on things like lowering corporate taxes.
Then it’s about how people can come and enjoy the city. We have hallyu, or the Korean wave, to ride on. In addition to this, we're planning to exploit the abundant natural resources of Seoul — including the mountainous terrain and the Han River — as well as the rich history of the city as main areas of tourist attraction.

What are your strategies to develop Seoul’s tourism?
Seoul is a metropolis with abundant natural resources that can be turned into tourism resources. In foreign countries, large cities and places with natural resources are often far apart. But in Seoul, you can enjoy everything within the city by traveling just 30 minutes to an hour. I believe it's the only metropolis in the world that has such a unique feature.
The Blue House has been opened recently, and it became possible to develop a more accessible and utilizable hiking course that offers the night view of downtown Seoul from Mount Bugak. The Blue House and its neighboring area became a new tourist focal point with Gyeongbokgung Palace, Gwanghwamun Square, the Seoul Museum of Craft Art, Anguk-dong, Bukchon, and Insa-dong, with them all connected to each other. It can also be a tourist course for those who already visited Seoul in the past and want to enjoy a new side of the city.
Sunset over the Han River [YONHAP]

Sunset over the Han River [YONHAP]

You pushed to develop the Han River under the so-called Han River Renaissance project in the past. What are the key changes according to your new master plan of the Great Sunset Han River Project?
Under the project, I am planning waterfront stages to be created like concert halls, where audiences can enjoy musicals, operas, and K-pop performances. Given the large size of the Han River and our experience making the Sebitseom Floating Islands, I am also planning to create stages big enough — that can hold up to 30,000 people — to host various sports events.
The sunsets over the Han River creates a stunning view. Another plan is to create structures with 360-degree views of sunsets. I have several locations in mind, and one of them is Nodeul Island, which could be an art island [with music, art and other artistic activities.]
A Ferris wheel [tentatively named the “Seoul Eye”] is also to be built along the Han, with good transportation accessibility. As technology and construction techniques are getting better, I am aiming for the world’s largest.
In 2021, the city government considered a ban on outdoor drinking in Han River parks. While the combination of fried chicken and beer, known as chimaek, became a must-try thing in Seoul, is there a way to minimize the damage caused by excessive drinking while preserving such a unique culture?
Like the chimaek culture, setting up a small tent, chatting and having a glass of wine along the Han River can become a leisure culture of the city, and I can relate to the argument over whether those activities should really be forbidden.
The city government is legislatively entitled to designate public places as alcohol-free zones. I believe it is right to gradually regulate drinking on the streets and in public places. But for places like the Han riverside, we can designate certain areas where people can enjoy chimaek or wine with low alcohol — and discourage the drinking of strong liquor.
Seoul is obviously in competition with other Asian cities for foreign investment. Foreign businesses that left Hong Kong due to the political turmoil are moving to Singapore. What advantages does Seoul have?
There are several factors that attract foreign direct investment, and the most essential thing is trust. There must be a guarantee that foreign firms won’t experience the same thing as they did in Hong Kong if they do business in Seoul. If they’re doing well in business yet have anxiety about political risk, then it's not a good investment environment. In this sense, the premise would be Korea has social capital that can give trust to foreign businesses.
The second factor, frankly speaking, is the English environment. Seoul is definitely at a disadvantage in terms of the English environment compared to Singapore.
The third factor is taxation. The Yoon administration announced it will lower the maximum corporate tax rate from the current 25 percent to 22 percent. The rate of corporate tax in Singapore, for instance, is 17 percent. Plus, they don’t have any inheritance taxes or gift taxes. So looking at the tax system comprehensively, it is evident that Singapore is a more attractive investment destination compared to Seoul.
But because Singapore is a city state and there are not enough places or events to spend leisure time, business people would start to feel bored after a few months. Compared to that, Seoul is a fun city with many nightlife options. How to harmonize these things to highlight the strengths and reduce the weaknesses will be the key.
An aerial view of the Yongsan International Business District [SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT]

An aerial view of the Yongsan International Business District [SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT]

There is an industrial complex in the city of Pangyo in Gyeonggi that is already known as the Silicon Valley of Korea. How can the Yongsan train depot site enhance its competitiveness to bring in high-tech companies?
If it is made into a smart city, companies that were in Pangyo will come in. You can tell by the changes in Teheran-ro in Gangnam. The rents in Teheran-ro are very high, and there are no vacant offices. So there is no need to worry about whether companies in Pangyo will come to Seoul.
Beyond having residences and offices in close proximity, I am planning to make live-work buildings, where offices and homes are in the same building, and add other functions such as leisure and education — and eventually make a self-contained area. With state-of-the-art high technology applied, the Yongsan area will probably be the most appropriate and efficient place to do business in Asia for both domestic and foreign companies.
In addition, there are about 50 universities located in Seoul that can provide manpower of quality as in Silicon Valley, so Yongsan will be the perfect area for business.
During your past mayoral term, you established international schools in Seoul. Do you have plans to expand the number of such schools?
International schools are welcome, and Seoul is always willing to provide administrative and financial support to schools wanting to establish in the city. The existence of a variety of schools for foreigners is a very important and basic element for the settlement of foreigners, and there are things that are already under negotiation.
Two international schools opened when I was in office in the past. But the former mayor [Park Won-soon] wasn’t very active in this area during the past ten years perhaps because he had a different philosophy, which I believe was a mistake. I’m open-minded, and I hope many good schools can come in.
To improve housing for foreigners, you have proposed a mid- to long-term plan to lease 10 percent of public housing to foreigners. Do you think this idea is acceptable to Koreans?
Housing in Seoul is actually a very sensitive issue. Though I would like to supply public housing to foreigners, I believe now is not the right time. Ten years ago when I was in office, I built rental apartments in Yangjae-dong for expatriates. But the former mayor leased them to low-income people.  
Because foreigners need a cost-effective space to live in and not just to buy, I do have in mind that there is a need to revitalize rental properties for foreigners through private investment.

BY SEO JI-EUN [seo.jieun1@joongang.co.kr]
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)