To regulate or deregulate?
Many Koreans lament that Korea remains a strict culture that does not allow for creativity or self-expression such as one finds in so-called advanced nations. I am not sure that those Western countries are as open or as imaginative as Koreans think they are - but that is a different issue. What is curious for me, as a foreigner living in Korea, is that I tend to notice places where Korea needs more strictness and regulation.
For example, as most internationals living in Korea will surely understand, Korea needs to get serious about punishing traffic violations. On a daily basis I witness men on motorcycles who ride recklessly on the sidewalk - illegally - without any concern for the safety of pedestrians. Sometimes these men carry heavy loads of pipes or other construction materials that make their daredevil weaving between pedestrians even more treacherous. I witnessed a terrible accident involving a small child who was hit by a food delivery man of this “fast delivery nation” soon after I first came to live here. That memory still haunts me.
Korea owes it to its own citizens to make sure its sidewalks are safe for pedestrians. Automobiles and motorcycles should be forced to give pedestrians the right of way in every case. As Korea develops, its cities must increasingly be designed for people, not for automobiles.
Towards that goal, it is entirely legitimate, or even essential, that the police hand out substantial fines to those who violate traffic laws, and that motorcyclists who use sidewalks as if they were streets should be subject to the strictest punishments. If Korea’s police become proactive in imposing safety regulations in transportation, including swift suspension of licenses for those with more than one offense, and even jail sentences for serious violations, the country could be transformed and may become a model for the rest of Asia.
Another area that Korea needs to get tough in is on regulations concerning the appearance of buildings and stores. The nations that we admire most for their urban environments, like Switzerland, have detailed rules concerning how owners maintain their houses, including rules for what forms of windows, roofs, plaster and exterior decoration are permitted.
Such strict rules, especially when they are meant to maintain the historical uniqueness of a neighborhood, are essential to retaining a harmonious environment. It is entirely legitimate to block a fast-food restaurant from setting up in a historical neighborhood, or to dictate that all new construction must be in traditional hanok (traditional Korean house) style if such regulations are critical to maintaining the integrity of the neighborhood. Setting rules that demand all signage be on wooden boards using attractive calligraphy, if that is an agreed-upon norm, is a positive step, and many Korean neighborhoods would benefit from such strict rules.
Above all, regulations that require a healthy balance between trees and buildings are essential to creating a city in which all citizens can enjoy nature in their daily lives.
Unfortunately, most neighborhoods have no such regulations. Owners do not have a right to let their properties decay or fail to meet basic standards. Such strict construction rules are the secret behind the attractive streets we observe in many European capitals.
These calls for regulation should not be limited to urban spaces. Rural Korea would benefit immensely from strict rules regarding signage and construction. Some of the most beautiful landscapes in rural Korea are ruined by garish buildings thoughtlessly put together without any thought for traditional Korean architecture or for the surrounding landscapes. It would be a positive step if all new construction in the attractive regions of Korea were required to conform to certain rigorous rules of traditional architecture.
Moreover, ironclad regulations concerning water could transform our cities and villages. If we mandate that water cannot have impurities above a certain amount, under force of substantial fines, we could ensure that the water around us is clean enough to support crayfish and salamanders. Korea could become a model for ecological sustainability and may even increase its tourism income.
I understand the desire of Koreans to escape from the oppressive regulations so common in Korean society, which can seriously restrict the daily lives of citizens and in extreme cases lead to depression and suicide. But at the same time, there are some parts of our lives that call for even stricter regulation.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.
by Emanuel Pastreich