World Press

[Austria_OSCE] Letting Democracy Work

Date 2017-05-30 Writer ssunha

Letting Democracy Work

When the streets of Seoul were filled with protesters earlier this year during the so-called candlelight revolution, you as mayor were responsible for safety and security. How did you manage?  

The candlelight march was a great achievement of the citizens exercising their democratic right. As mayor of Seoul, my role was to allow the rallies and protests to proceed smoothly and to ensure the people’s safety, with the assistance of several thousand civil servants of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. They prevented the citizens from accessing potentially dangerous facilities. They also helped with extending the operating time of the public transportation service and – importantly – providing access to public and mobile restrooms.

How do you see the role of citizens in the government of the city?

The essence of democracy is giving sovereignty to the people, bowing to their will and intention. Many elected politicians are unwilling to listen to the opinions of the people once they are elected. That is why we see so much rage and disappointment in politicians these days and that is probably the reason why people marched in the streets to bring about the impeachment of President Part Guen-hye. Before becoming mayor I worked for a long time as an activist. I was always interested in listening to and representing the voices and opinions of the people and making this into a systematic process. I have always emphasized collaborative government, meaning opening up the entire process to the people. Even though it may take a very long time to listen to their opinions, to engage in discussions and debate, to make a decision and then finally to implement that decision, opening this process up to the people is what democratic government is all about. 

What is your policy for Seoul’s economic development?

Korea has achieved a very high level of economic growth over the past years. That is to a large part due to the large conglomerates, the chaebols. Thanks to them we have become an advanced industrialized society. But now we are seeing growing economic inequality and a loss of economic momentum. So we need to encourage the creative energy and innovative power of the people, allow them to launch their own start-ups and have those start-ups flourish. Currently, many resources are dominated and monopolized by the chaebols, and this is causing a loss of opportunity for further growth. For the sake not only of economic growth as such but also of the citizens’ wellbeing, we need a paradigm shift from a chaebol-based economy to one oriented on small- and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups. There is already consensus in our society about this and the Seoul Metropolitan Government has adopted it as its basic philosophy. We are making efforts to translate this into policy and it is my hope that the new incoming Korean government will also focus its energy on the shift to this new policy direction.

What about environmental sustainability?

In the days when we were experiencing a high rate of economic growth, there was an emphasis on efficiency and we had a society that was very much infrastructure- and hardware-centred. But today, especially since my inauguration as mayor of Seoul, the philosophy has completely changed. We now have an approach that is centred on people, software, innovation and collaborative governance. We are working to make Seoul a green city. To name one example: we are implementing a project similar to the highline project in New York City, a pedestrian park that is transforming the city from a car-centred to a people-centred one. My basic idea for this project is to make the centre of the city not car-centred but rather public transportation-friendly and convenient for bicycles and walking. There are going to be tremendous changes in the city of Seoul; it is going to be completely different from the past.

Does Seoul share its recipe for success with other cities?

In contrast to European cities, which developed very slowly over several centuries, we in Korea have achieved both industrialization and democratization in just half a century – very rapidly. So many cities in developing countries look to Seoul as a model. They want to benchmark our experiences and policies. In fact, there are more than 30 cities around the world looking to import and benchmark our policies. We are co-operating with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok and we have established an urban platform for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, through which we are sharing our policies and our advanced experiences of growth and change. Many cities are very interested in participating in this platform.