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[Herald Interview] Seoul mayoral candidate aims to turn city into Asia’s financial hub

Woo vows to provide free vaccines for all Seoulites, including foreigners; build townhouses along highways

 
Rep. Woo Sang-ho of the Democratic Party of Korea (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Rep. Woo Sang-ho of the Democratic Party of Korea (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Ruling Democratic Party Rep. Woo Sang-ho, currently the only ruling bloc figure to announce a bid in Seoul’s mayoral race, has big plans for the city -- from transforming it into an international financial hub to building homes along its major thoroughfares.

Woo said many financial institutions are considering relocating their Asian headquarters from Hong Kong due to continued protests, and that Singapore and Seoul could be candidates.

“There is a good chance for Seoul to win the competition with Singapore. The Asian headquarters of the New York Times also recently came here. Seoul’s competitiveness is never weak,” Woo told The Korea Herald in a recent interview at his office in the National Assembly.

Woo, 58, has won parliamentary elections in Seoul’s Seodaemun District four times. As the Democratic Party’s floor leader, he led the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye in 2016.

“I plan to lift the height limit regulations in front of the National Assembly so that more foreign companies can come (and build high-rises),” he said.

Currently, in the eastern part of Yeouido, where Seoul’s landmark 63 Building is located, there are many financial skyscrapers, such as the 283-meter-tall International Finance Center and the newer 333-meter-tall Parc1 Tower. However, in the western part of Yeouido, buildings can be no taller than 65 meters under the Urban Planning Act due to the presence of the 48-meter-high National Assembly.

“When global companies come to the western part of Yeouido, they can create synergy with local financial firms in the eastern part and are expected to create at least 150,000 new decent jobs. When I become mayor of Seoul, I will bring top financial experts to make Seoul a global financial hub,” the candidate said.

As for Seoul’s chronic housing shortage, he plans to increase the supply of housing by building townhouses along highways.

“(If elected), I plan to build six- to seven-story townhouses on highways -- such as Olympic-daero and Gangbyeonbuk-ro -- with a view of the Han River. This way, around 160,000 houses can be supplied within four years,” he said. 

The Seoul Metropolitan Government’s envisioned townhouses along the Bukbu Expressway (Seoul Metropolitan Government)
The Seoul Metropolitan Government’s envisioned townhouses along the Bukbu Expressway (Seoul Metropolitan Government)


This is an extension of the current Seoul Metropolitan Government’s plan to build 1,000 public housing units along the Bukbu Expressway, a highway in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province. It envisions public housing along a 500-meter section of the highway.

“(When I say this), the most frequently asked (question is about) the noise problem. But there have already been successes in building houses on the Autobahn in Berlin, Germany, and on a railway in Paris, France. They completely resolved noise and smoke issues.”

Since 2014, France has promoted the urban space innovation project “Reinventer Paris,” and in 1981, Germany created the “Schlangenbader strabe” on the autobahn near Berlin.

As the city continues to tackle the pandemic, Woo said he plans to provide free vaccines to all Seoul citizens, including foreigners living in the city.

“Currently, the government’s vaccine supply is targeting vulnerable groups and essential workers, not all citizens, so we plan to provide free vaccines for those excluded from the supply and for Seoul citizens who want to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity.” he said.

He predicted that a budget of 200 billion won ($183 million) would be sufficient to provide free vaccines for all residents of Seoul.

“For free vaccinations, a budget of 200 billion won is necessary and the Seoul government can afford that. As the central government is responsible for free vaccinations for about 40 percent of the vulnerable and essential workers, the Seoul government should take responsibility for the rest.”


Below are excerpts from the interview.



The Korea Herald: The pandemic is expected to continue in 2021. What kinds of policies do you have in mind, including the quarantine system?

Woo Sang-ho: The situation is worrisome as the daily number of confirmed cases reaches around 1,000.

First of all, the risk of infection should be limited by significantly reducing the number of confirmed cases. It is necessary to strongly punish those who violate the government policies and quarantine guidelines, especially adult entertainment establishments, which are blind spots for quarantine.

And we need to eliminate the fear and anxiety of infection. Currently, the government’s vaccine supply is targeting vulnerable groups and essential workers, not all citizens, so we plan to provide free vaccines for those excluded from the supply and for Seoul citizens who want to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity.



KH: Will the free vaccination program include foreigners living in Seoul?

Woo: The virus does not discriminate between foreigners and Koreans. I believe that vaccines can be supplied to foreign residents for the safety of all citizens of Seoul.

Under the current law, foreigners with nationality from other countries are considered residents if they live in Korea for more than 183 days and are also subject to various systems such as tax laws.

For free vaccinations, a budget of 200 billion won is necessary and the Seoul government can afford that. As the central government is responsible for free vaccinations for about 40 percent of the vulnerable and essential workers, the Seoul government should take responsibility for the rest.



KH: When the pandemic is over, what do you think is the most urgent task that the city of Seoul must solve?

Woo: If I become the mayor, I will prepare various economic policies that can remedy the damages to small-business owners caused by the prolonged COVID-19, and that can stimulate the economy quickly in Seoul.

And I will come up with solutions to stabilize the real estate market. At this point, where the housing shortage is a critical issue, the massive supply of public housing is considered the most urgent policy.

Looking at major cities overseas with stable real estate prices, they have a very high proportion of public housing. This is because there is a separate public housing market that is not affected by rapid fluctuations in market prices.

For example, 75 percent of Singapore is public housing, Vienna has 40 percent and Tokyo, Paris and London 25 percent, but Seoul has less than 8 percent public housing. It is rare to find a city as large as Seoul with such a low proportion of public housing.

In that respect, I made a pledge to supply 160,000 houses through public housing, thinking that it is time to urgently push forward a policy to solve the chronic housing shortage.



KH: Please explain in detail the plan to supply 160,000 public housing units.

Woo: The key to solving the housing shortage is how and to what extent housing land can be supplied in the fastest time to bring stability to the market.

Some say that regulations on redevelopment and reconstruction of the private sector should be lifted and housing land should be supplied through private developers. However, in the past 15 years, the number of houses supplied by the private sector through the relaxation of regulations under former mayors Lee Myung-bak and Oh Se-hoon was about 120,000 units, which means around 10,000 units per year. Can such a method of supplying 10,000 units a year be a key supply policy? No.

Usually, urban maintenance projects take 10 years from approval to completion, but people are in urgent need now.

At times like this, public housing is faster. If you build artificial land on the public sites -- such as on highways -- it is possible to build 160,000 houses within four years. We plan to build six- to seven-story townhouses with a view of the Han River by building walls on expressways such as Olympic-daero and Gangbyeonbuk-ro.

(When I say this), the most frequently asked (question is about) the noise problem. But there have already been successes in building houses on the Autobahn in Berlin, Germany, and on a railway in Paris, France. They completely resolved noise and smoke issues.

I don’t think this policy can solve the real estate problem in Seoul at once. However, it can bring stability to the market by supplying public housing on a certain scale in the fastest time.



KH: What kinds of efforts are you going to make to globalize Seoul and attract foreign investment?

Woo: I made a pledge to turn Seoul into Asia’s New York.

Korea is a country with a higher proportion of manufacturing industries than other OECD countries. But when you look at (rich countries) like the US and the UK, finance is a key industry in cities.

Hong Kong also has the Asian headquarters of global financial institutions. But most of the institutions are planning to relocate within 10 years as there is a possibility of instability in the Hong Kong market due to protests.

The candidates are Singapore and Seoul. There is a good chance for Seoul to win the competition with Singapore. The Asian headquarters of the New York Times recently came to Seoul. Seoul’s competitiveness is never weak. I plan to lift height limit regulations in front of the National Assembly located in the western part of Yeouido so that foreign companies can come.

That way, local financial institutions in the eastern part of Yeouido and foreign companies in the western part can create synergy and can also create at least 150,000 new decent jobs. When foreign companies come to Korea, they will have to use Korean manpower. When I become mayor of Seoul, I plan to bring in top financial experts to make Seoul a global financial hub.

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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