BECOMING THE Mayor of Seoul was not an easy journey for Park Won-soon. Having been arrested for his role in democratization protests, expelled from university, but eventually turning the tables around and becoming a successful human rights lawyer and civil activist, Park has led a life nothing short of adventurous. Emerging victorious in the recent local election in June 2018, Park became the first mayor of Seoul to serve three consecutive terms. With a four-year extension in office, Park plans to continue the work that he began in 2011. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Park shared his background, present life and future goals for the city of Seoul.
Annals: Please share your thoughts on your recent victory that made you the first mayor of Seoul to serve a third consecutive term.
Mayor Park: My heart was only filled with gratitude towards the citizens of Seoul and the city officials. I believe that the recent victory was the result of the citizens’ common wish for "a decade of revolution" in Seoul, and came to fruition through the six years of time and effort that Seoul’s public servants and I invested. As the first mayor of Seoul to serve a third consecutive term, I face considerable responsibility and pressure. As I am granted another opportunity to work with and for the citizens of Seoul, I will continue my strong efforts to create a new wave of change.
Annals: We would like to hear about your younger days as a student. Can you share any experiences of your life on campus?
Mayor Park: Unfortunately, I did not have much chance to enjoy the life on campus. Three months after admission, I was arrested for my involvement in the democratization movement and subsequently expelled from school. However, just like how some events in life serve as blessings in disguise, this experience was a critical turning point in my life. During my time in jail, I was introduced to the book "The Struggle for Law" by Rudolf Von Jhering. The phrase from the book—“You have to find your rights in the struggle”—served as inspiration for me to pursue my dream and eventually become who I am today. Participation and solidarity, as mentioned by Jhering, have become two of the most valued principles of mine. This book led me to begin studying for the bar examination, then to become a human rights lawyer and a civil activist—all in an effort to represent the rights of countless people.
Annals: You were already a successful human rights lawyer and civil activist before you became a politician. What led you to venture into politics?
Mayor Park: The treacherous and hopeless political situation of the time led me to pursue politics. One of the key events that influenced the start of my political career was a personal inspection by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) under the Lee Myung-Bak administration when I was working as a human rights lawyer. Witnessing the appalling state of the nation, in which the government utilized its intelligence service to monitor and persecute innocent citizens, served as one of the reasons why I decided to pursue a political career. It was indeed a time of despair and hopelessness, and I believe it to be my role as a politician to ensure that our society does not regress back to such a dark time for democracy.
Annals: We are also interested to know how you spend your leisure time, busy as you must be. Can you share with us your life outside of the office?
Mayor Park: A mayor is also a citizen, just like everybody else; my interests are no different. I spend my leisure time reading and catching up on dramas—similar to how most people spend their free time. Last year, I actually started running marathons as I needed exercise, initially with the intention of challenging myself to do something I hate doing the most. But over time, I grew to enjoy the sport. I even completed a full 10 kilometer marathon recently. After I finished my month-long stay in Samyang-dong*, I started running again, usually once or twice a week. I find marathon-running to be a great sport, as it brings many people together to accomplish a common goal.
Annals: From introducing late-night public transport to providing subsidized tuition at the University of Seoul, you have implemented several policies pertaining to the needs of the youth. What are some of the new policies that youths can expect for this term?
Mayor Park: I believe that the younger generation knows what it needs most. So, through various platforms, such as the Seoul Youth Parliament, youth can actively propose policies themselves. The Youth Benefits, Youth New-Deal Jobs and Twice-the-Hope Youth Accounts are all policies that came out of this platform.
This year at the Youth Parliament, I made a number of promises: to dramatically revamp the city government to benefit the youth, to revise the administrative structure to expand youth participation, to establish a process that enables youth participation in city policies and to benefit youth by ensuring that youth start-ups are entitled to participate in various business projects.
It will be difficult to solve the challenges we face today if the past generation stands in the way of the new. It is thus our duty as older citizens to hand over power to the younger generations and provide them with a broader pool of opportunities. Seoul will always remain by the side of the youth.
Annals: In 2015, The Guardian selected you as one of their “Top Five Most Innovative Mayors Around the World.” What does innovation mean to you? What impact have your changes made on Seoul?
Mayor Park: I would like to say that the current level of cooperation and innovation is not flawless nor fixed, but rather only a step in achieving social progress. For further change to happen, our citizens must become the catalysts for such a transition. Only when collaboration and innovation became normative, fueled by ordinary people, were past generations able to write history and build new civilizations. Thus, through citizens’ initiatives today, we have hopes to build a better world for the generations to come.
Annals: You have recently stayed at a rooftop house in Samyang-dong for a month. Please tell us why you chose to stay there and any reflections you had after the experience.
Mayor Park: Not long after I moved into the rooftop house, one of the neighboring senior citizens told me: “Never has a politician set foot in this neighborhood in the past. I thank you for coming.” I think these words best explain why I moved—I wanted to reach out to people in need of help, hear their stories and discuss solutions together.
Residence in Samyang-dong exposed me to the distinct inequality of wealth present throughout society, and hearing and engaging in several discussions has shown me the path to potential solutions. Although it is not an easy task to resolve deep-rooted societal imbalance, I pledge to tirelessly pursue solutions with the help of many others.
Annals: What kind of mayor do you wish to be remembered as in the future?
Mayor Park: I want to be remembered as a mayor who has always stood by the citizens and fought for their interests to the end. It would be great to hear that at the end of my term.
Annals: To conclude, do you have any comments for the members and readers of The Yonsei Annals?
Mayor Park: The world belongs to those who dream. No matter how difficult or hopeless it may seem, do not let go of your hopes and dreams. Challenge yourself with youthful enthusiasm and ambition. Seoul will always be there to support you. Thank you.
*Mayor Park’s residence in a rooftop house in Samyang-dong was one of the election pledges made during his campaign. His rationale behind such decision was to experience first-hand the real life challenges that Seoul citizens commonly face, such as housing concerns.