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The Promise of Park Won Soon

Seoul Salvation

by JOHN FEFFER

His name was on the lips of everyone I talked with in South Korea last week. As an underdog with little name recognition but a long history of progressive organizing, he came from behind late last month to become the new mayor of Seoul.

Remember his name. Park Won Soon is perhaps the first politician to win with an Occupy Wall Street platform.

A founder of the watchdog organization People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), Park has been a key leader in Korea’s vibrant civil society. After a couple decades as a political gadfly, he is now in a seat of considerable power. And people are talking about him not only for the positions he staked out as an independent candidate, which focused on social welfare issues, but for the potential of his victory to transform Korean politics in 2012. The implications for South Korea’s relations with the North, with its other neighbors, and with the United States are enormous.

I met Park Won Soon more than a decade ago, when he was just starting to think beyond PSPD. Korean civil society activists are always working, always networking and multitasking, and they sometimes joke that they only take vacations when hospitalized for exhaustion. Park, on the other hand, always struck me as exceptionally serene. The names of the organizations he built after PSPD — the grant-making Beautiful Foundation and a think tank called the Hope Institute — reflect his optimistic disposition and his desire not just to change Korean politics but to transform Korea’s overall sago bangshik, or way of thinking. He also possesses tremendous powers of persuasion. Once he even convinced the top South Korean steel company POSCO to underwrite fellowships for civil society activists to study in the United States. Try to imagine a similar partnership between Chrysler and Moveon.org.

This former watchdog now runs a city of over 10 million people, larger than Tokyo or Mexico City or any city in the United States. Seoul is responsible for almost 50 percent of the country’s GDP (New York, by comparison, is responsible for about 8 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product, Beijing about 3 percent of China’s). So, essentially, Park Won Soon is in charge of a mid-sized country, minus the foreign and military policy. Given Seoul’s disproportionate weight, the mayoralty is a political stepping stone, and one of Park’s predecessors in the job, Lee Myung-Bak, is now the conservative president of the country.

But Park Won Soon is not a career politician. He is more interested in the delivery of services, particularly to the less advantaged. “We must make sure no one is sleeping cold and hungry under the skies of Seoul,” he told his staff. On his first day in office, Park expanded the free lunch programto all elementary school children, a major commitment to universal entitlements that will ensure support across class lines. His effort to reduce university tuition at the publicly funded University of Seoul is a big thank-you to the huge number of young people that supported his campaign. He has been skeptical about a number of high-profile infrastructure programs in Seoul, preferring to focus on building more public housing. And he has pledged to increase social welfare spending in order to reduce economic inequality.

Rising inequality, which has spurred the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spread worldwide, has been a major problem in South Korea. For instance, the country ranks an impressive 15th in the world in the UN’s Human Development Index. But if income inequality is factored in, it drops to the 32nd position, a loss in rank exceeded only by the United States and Colombia. By decrying this inequality and labeling his opponent a member of the 1 percent, Park may be the first politician to rise to power in the Occupy Wall Street era – and he won’t be the last.

Park’s election has upended political expectations in Korea. As a political outsider, he nevertheless trounced the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) candidate Na Kyung-won. Na had some powerful backers. The most prominent was the GNP’s Park Geun-Hye, who is the daughter of former authoritarian leader Park Chung-Hee and a leading contender in the 2012 presidential race. That Na lost, and lost badly, reflects the unpopularity of President Lee Myung-Bak, whose approval rating hovers around 32 percent. The most popular podcast in Korea these days is a low-budget affair that features four guys sitting around a table slagging the president.

Next year South Korea will hold parliamentary elections in the spring and then presidential elections in the winter. The opposition Democratic Party smells blood. It has already shifted into high gear in the Korean parliament to defeat the recently signed free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. But Park Won Soon’s victory will not translate directly into a victory for the Democratic Party. After all, he initially ran as an independent before agreeing to a unified ticket. Crucial backing came from Ahn Cheol-soo, a maverick academic and software tycoon who has largely avoided political parties. Ahn’s endorsement boosted the future mayor’s approval rating from 5 percent to nearly 50 percent. Korean voters, like their counterparts all over the world, are rejecting politics as usual and the ritual do-se-doing of parties.

During the election, Park didn’t say much about national policy, instead concentrating on municipal matters. But he has expressed concern about the FTA and criticized the current administration’s confrontational approach to North Korea. He has also indicated interest in joining the organization Mayors for Peace. These stands will embolden other politicians to follow suit. And they point to a repudiation of Lee Myung-Bak’s foreign policy and a return to the more independent initiatives of previous leaders Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun.

In a country where social hierarchy is deeply entrenched, where the language has multiple levels of address depending on social rank, Park Won Soon’s most radical policies may well lie in his hands-on, bottom-up approach. When addressing his management team, he uses the humble form of address and has asked his subordinates not to rise when he walks into the room. And last week, the new mayor showed up at 6 a.m. in a fluorescent green uniform to clean the Seoul streets in the morning trash pick-up. This was no mere photo op. Park is genuinely interested in the perspectives of all the citizens of Seoul.

Park Won Soon is certainly not the first civil society organizer to win political office in Korea. But he may be the first to combine a reformist platform with a commitment to revolution – a revolution in social values.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes its regular World Beat column, and will be publishing a book on Islamophobia with City Lights Press in 2012.