Seoul Salvation

Posted January 8, 2011

Categories: Articles, Korea

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

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 program to 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.

Speaking of Revolutions

Around the time that residents of Seoul went to the polls to elect Park Won Soon, Tunisians participated in their freest and fairest election in the country’s history. The winning party, Ennahda, takes its inspiration from Turkey’s Justice and Development Party. But perhaps more important than who won or lost was how the Tunisians played the game.

“In a country of 10.5 million people with 4.4 million registered voters, perhaps as high as 90 percent of those eligible cast their votes, including many from the interior who had not formally registered but who had the right, according to the law, to participate,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Rob Prince in Tunisia Elections: The Real Thing This Time. “Eighty-one parties fielded candidates, half of whom were women. Over 7,000 accredited election observers, among them 533 foreign observers, monitored the proceedings, which were deemed among the most democratic ever held in the region.”

Vietnam, meanwhile, has experienced a revolution of a different sort since it instituted a non-coercive two-child policy in 1988. The average number of children born to a family dropped from six to 2.1, which translates into 18.6 million fewer children. Writes FPIF columnist Walden Bello in Seven Billion…and Rising, the lower birth rate “has meant that Vietnam could devote more resources to upgrading the quality of education, alleviating poverty, and increasing investment. The country registered a growth rate of 7.2 percent per annum in the period from 2000-2010. By 2010, average per capita income in the country had tripled, reflecting economic growth outpacing the population growth rate.”

The World Bank, finally, is poised for a revolution…in transparency. In 2000, along with a colleague, World Bank employee David Shaman launched B-SPAN, a web-streaming service to publicize Bank policy dialogues. “The large majority of staff understood the Bank needed to be more open and accountable with its stakeholders to help the institution establish a measure of legitimacy and enable it to mold economic policy in its client countries,” he writes. “Over the five years I managed the system, we produced more than 700 unedited webcasts on the entire gamut of the Bank’s operational and research activities. By 2004, B-SPAN was being watched by a quarter-million viewers and attracting almost 2 percent of the Bank’s Internet traffic.”

After five years, though, the World Bank let the initiative die. Shaman is back and trying to restart B-SPAN. Read about his efforts in A Pivotal Moment for World Bank Transparency.

Going to War?

Last month, the U.S. government unveiled a bizarre plot that involved an Iranian agent enlisting Mexican narcotraffickers to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington. If relations between Washington and Tehran weren’t so dismal, it would be easy to laugh off the allegations. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is taking the plot seriously. With the IAEA now saying that Iran is on the doorstep of the nuclear club and Israel again making noises about a strike on Iran’s nuclear program, it’s a bad time for Washington to be spinning spy yarns.

The evidence for the plot, as FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian points out, is pretty thin. And it’s hard to imagine a motive. “Assassinating a top Saudi official on American soil not only jeopardizes Iran’s national interests, but it also runs counter to Iran’s apparent strategic calculations,” he writes in Iran Plot: A Pretext for War. “Facing challenges on both domestic and international fronts, Iran is in no position to provoke Saudi Arabia and the United States. If Iran really wanted to hurt the Kingdom, it could do so through proxies in Middle East. To conduct such an operation on American soil would brazenly provoke a conflict that Iran has tried to avoid for decades.”

The war in Somalia, meanwhile, continues as the Kenyan army advances south on key al-Shabaab strongholds. “Despite the denials, it is clear that the United States and its NATO allies are in cahoots with Kenya in its current adventures in Somalia,” writes FPIF contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt in History Repeats Itself in Somalia Invasion. “They have funded, trained, and supported the Kenyan armed forces for years. They have admitted helping Kenya train and equip ethnic Somali fighters associated with clan-based militias in the lower Juba region that borders Kenya. The United States used drones and helicopter gunships to take out the militants who bombed its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.”

FPIF, November 8, 2011

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *