“Now that the citizens are virtual ‘mayors’ of this city, Seoul will become a welcoming and safe city that offers hope and dreams, where the people come first.”
Mayor Park Won-soon launched his second term in office on July 1. The “simple” inauguration ceremony held in front of City Hall, with 400 citizens in attendance, featured an event that drew special attention. Six citizens, including a social welfare worker, a university student, a high school teacher, and a designer, delivered their inaugural speeches as “citizen mayors.” Selected as “citizen mayors” through a fierce competition, they promised, in their speeches, to work to ensure the safety of the public transportation system in Seoul and improve welfare for the disabled and the elderly.
Mayor Park appeared after their speeches and promised the audience that he would honor the pledges of the “citizen mayors,” taking their inaugural speeches as his own. Such a statement from the mayor clearly indicates the great importance he is placing on communication with the people.
Mayor Park communicates with citizens through social networking channels, such as Twitter and Facebook. He sometimes conveys his happiness and pleasure to others through the use of heart symbols. Last year, the mayor sent a special birthday message to Yuna, a member of the popular girl group, Girls’ Generation, through a social networking channel.
Park said he doesn’t sign in to Twitter every day, but learns a lot there. He stated, “Seoul is a metropolitan city with a population of 10 million, so I may not be aware of every problem in every district. Therefore, I try to read about these problems on social networking sites on my way to work in the morning. I do my best to find all such problems, since I cannot carry out my duty as mayor without understanding the real problems in this city.”
Mayor Park has a deep belief in the value of communication. Park’s book, “Careful Listening: Park Won Soon’s Communication Project in Korea,” published early this year, clearly describes his philosophy of communication. In the book, he emphasizes the importance of “careful listening” to properly hear what others say and understand their positions. “We need to have open ears to listen to others, much like our eyes need to be open to see,” he said. Regarding social networking channels, such as Kakao Story and Facebook, the mayor said they are “the spaces where we all communicate with each other and share information and knowledge,” and again stressed the importance of “careful listening,” saying that although people may have different opinions, that does not mean they are wrong.
Through Mayor Park’s active communication with citizens on social networking channels, he receives news from 88,000 citizens through Kakao Story and has around 850,000 Twitter followers.
“Mayor’s Hope Journal,” with more than 500 postings since his inauguration, is the most well-known page among citizens. It is where the mayor expresses his personal concerns and opinions to the people and takes note of their responses. For example, here, he recommends places to visit during the summer vacation or expresses his thoughts after watching a television program.
He recently brought laughter to the people by posting a message entitled, “Do You Think I Have an Ugly Face? Read a Column by Reporter Lee Eun-ho of Edaily.” In the column, the writer humorously confesses that he is “stricken with the strange belief that the mayor looks handsome,” although his face is “full of features to be criticized.”
Park’s philosophy of communication is also found in his official activities. One good example is the so-called “Policy Listening Debate (cheongchaektoronhoe),” the purpose of which is to listen to public views on policy. At first, this writer thought cheongchaektoronhoe was a misspelling of “jeongchaektoronhoe” (policy debate). But after I read the explanation that the purpose of the forum is to make policy decisions after listening to the opinions of citizens, I realized that it wasn’t.
The debate covers diverse subjects, from matters related to everyday life, such as “The City Where Both People and Animals Are Happy,” “Ten Testaments of Street Blocks,” and “Activation of Village Media,” to more serious themes, including “Ways to Cope with Ultra-Fine Dust” and the “Debate for Setting Up Policy for Individual Creators”.
In an interview with an online media reporter earlier this year, Park said, “Talking with 100 to 200 people and really listening to them helps me to figure out what I should do.” He places great emphasis on the cheongchaektoronhoe, saying that it is a major example of how Seoul City listens to the people and clearly shows that “the city is together with the citizens”. He believes that public participation in making documents for mere display does not mean much.
People around him say that his leadership through communication originates from his over 10 years of experience working in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, the Beautiful Foundation, and the Hope Institute. Such civic organizations are run by consensus of their diverse members with equal rights. With his extensive experience with NGOs, Park has internalized their way of communication, based on discussion and persuasion.
Starting in 2006, Park spent three years taking trips across the country. He visited every place that he felt had something to teach him, interviewed hundreds of people, and wrote a book after each trip. He said he realized the importance of sincerely listening to people in order to gain a proper and complete understanding of what they are really saying.
For this reason, Mayor Park believes that mutual confidence built through communication is the “greatest infrastructure” for Korean society to overcome crisis and achieve stable growth. He goes even further and says, without hesitation, that communication creates bap (boiled rice), money, and jobs.
In fact, he has brought positive change to the privately run Subway Line No. 9, which had been suffering a chronic deficit, through communication and consultation with countless people. He introduced an unprecedented “citizen fund,” which helped prevent the waste of KRW 3.2 trillion in tax money. He also saved KRW 250 billion of the city budget by achieving an agreement on the construction of state-run and public nurseries on land planned for private apartments through dialogue and consultation with interested parties. Also, the labor union of Seoul Metro has never gone on strike during Park’s term in office, which proves the effectiveness of his leadership through communication.
A Canadian living in Seoul, Colin, 33, said, “I used to think that Korean politicians and bureaucrats were quite authoritative, but reading the “Mayor’s Hope Journal,” in English, completely shattered this misconception. His effort to become closer to the citizens is something quite unique and rare, even in other countries.”
A 40-year-old Chinese resident, Yu Xiao Yun, said, “There are some things that are easily said but are difficult to implement in a top-down, authoritative bureaucratic system. As I watch him actually putting his promises into practice, I automatically respect him.”
The Park Won Soon boat, which is leading his second term in office as the mayor of Seoul, has fully raised anchor, and expectations are rising concerning what his “communication” leadership will bring to the administration of Seoul City during his four-year term.
By Kim Joo-yun (firstname.lastname@example.org)