Seoul Mayor Park: Korea’s self-styled ‘social designer’

By Lee Hyun-jeong
  • Published : Feb 5, 2014 - 20:23
  • Updated : Feb 5, 2014 - 20:26
Park Won-soon

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon calls himself a “social designer” rather than a politician or a former lawyer. According to him, a social designer is one who works to make society more reasonable and humane.

Before entering politics, Park focused on bringing social changes with civic activities. The Beautiful Foundation, the NGO he established in 2002, is where these activities blossomed.

While studying for a law diploma at the U.K.’s London School of Economics and Political Science and working as a guest researcher at Harvard University in the U.S. in the early 1990s, Park experienced those nations’ cultures of donation, and decided to bring the idea to Korea.

Focusing on donation and sharing in the organization, Park started up a “1 percent fund-raising scheme,” in which participants donate 1 percent of their income. A large number of celebrities and high-ranking officials contributed to the new movement.

Park also launched the Beautiful Store, a charity shop modeled on the U.K.’s Oxfam. This store was the first of its kind in the country. There are now over 120 branches of the nationwide, with some 5,000 volunteers.

Park received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in the public service sector in 2006 for having established the Beautiful Foundation. The award, which commemorates the integrity in government of former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay, is often called Asia’s Nobel Prize.

However, this was not the first organization he founded. Before working at the Beautiful Foundation, Park established a nonprofit watchdog, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in 1994. Park campaigned against corruption and sought to monitor government regulatory practices and stimulate reforms in politics and family-owned conglomerates until 2002. Since then, the organization has become one of the nation’s most influential advocacy groups.

In addition to two NGOs, the change-seeker founded the Hope Institute, a nongovernmental think-tank in 2006.

Instead of stimulating reforms in politics or the donation culture in society, this time, Park led the group to seek development of local communities through citizen participation until 2011. He put efforts into raising social entrepreneurs and digging out solutions from grass roots suggestions.

His life, however, was not always dominated by civic activism.

Born in 1956 in a rural neighborhood in Changnyeong-gun, South Gyeongsang Province, Park attended Kyunggi High School in Seoul and entered Seoul National University in 1975.

He was soon drawn into student movements, influenced in part by a fellow student who killed himself in protest against the dictatorship, and was expelled for taking part in an anti-government protest. For his part in the demonstration, Park spent two months in police custody and two months in a detention center.

Park then went on to graduate from Dankook University with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1979.

Passing the Korean bar exam in 1980, Park worked as a public prosecutor at Daegu District Prosecutor’s Office but resigned in a year after finding the duties unsuited to his interests.

After becoming a lawyer, Park provided legal support for those in need from 1983, mainly focusing on human rights issues.

He also jointly launched a non-profit group called Lawyers for a Democratic Society with other liberal lawyers.

Park won the Seoul mayoral by-election in 2011, becoming both the first civic activist and first independent candidate to take the post. He has since joined the main opposition Democratic Party.

By Lee Hyun-jeong (