The Korea Herald


Mayor looks to vitalize city diplomacy

By Kim Young-won

Published : Aug. 17, 2012 - 20:44

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Following are excerpts from the interview with Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon. ― Ed.

Korea Herald: You have promised to make Seoul a city which is “human-centric and vibrant with creativity and innovation.” What efforts have been made for this vision?

Park Won-soon: The world is moving that way. If the 19th and 20th centuries were eras of development and growth, now the quality of life and gross national happiness (GNH), instead of gross national product (GNP), are at the center. In that regard, meaningful discussions are underway in the OECD and many advanced nations such as the U.K. are focusing their policies on people’s happiness.

The center of gravity of public administration is moving from hardware and construction projects to software that can maximize policy effects. In addition, businesses are also changing in that direction, from smokestack industries to high-value added services, knowledge and creative sectors.

Korea is also moving toward a society where human values and creative thinking are more important. That is why I emphasize welfare, the quality of life and a creative mind. It is time for Korea to keep up with the global trend and lead the way rather than to follow others. Korea is now one of the world’s most advanced economies and for the country to join the ranks of the top five powers, we should think differently. 
Seoul City Mayor Park Won-soon and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg greet at a meeting of the C40 Global Leadership on Climate Change, a group of city leaders committed to addressing climate change, in June in Rio de Janeiro. (Yonhap News) Seoul City Mayor Park Won-soon and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg greet at a meeting of the C40 Global Leadership on Climate Change, a group of city leaders committed to addressing climate change, in June in Rio de Janeiro. (Yonhap News)

Herald: City diplomacy has been growing in importance. What kind of efforts is the city making in this regard?

Park: Diplomacy has been traditionally in the realm of the central government. But now concepts like “local-to-local” or “people-to-people” are emerging and cities are increasingly engaged in win-win exchanges of humans and materials, rather than being representatives of national interests.

Seoul City has not been engaged in city diplomacy in earnest. Its international relations were limited to sister ties with other cities. Now we want to go further than that level.

As for Seoul, the core resources for city diplomacy would be the experience it has gained while developing from the ashes of the Korean War. I think Seoul reached the top level in the world in the fields of sewage, city transportation, subway systems, safety measures and e-governance. We still have a long way to go, but can share what we have achieved with our partners. We will actively try to provide and export them to other cities.

Seoul City has recently changed the name of the Seoul Development Institute (a research institute for city policies) to the Seoul Institute. The institute will conduct research on cities with more than 1 million residents in Asia and Africa. It will also run a program in which civil officers from the cities can take a one-year course at University of Seoul and build human networks.

The city will not only support other cities by exporting its know-how in city planning and development, but also learn from them. It also hopes to work with private firms in doing that.

Herald: You have taken the leadership at the World Mayors Council on Climate Change. What is your plan as the chairman?

Park: I did not expect to take the post as the chairperson of the World Mayors Council on Climate Change. Asia is not highly aware of that issue. It appears that the committee wanted me to lead initiatives. Seoul City is a member of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, in which around 1,400 city and local governments participate, and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which has 40 metropolitan city members.

Climate change is a global issue and is also an important agenda for Korea. I will try to make Seoul an exemplary model in protecting the environment while leading the WMCCC. I will show leadership by acting rather than talking. For example, Seoul is now campaigning to reduce energy use by 2014 by 200 tons of oil equivalent, the average amount that a nuclear power plant produces, and to increase renewable energy generation at the same time.

Herald: The “Han River Renaissance Master Plan” has been almost scrapped in the face of criticism that it is a plan for the sake of display. Do you have plans to both preserve the eco-system of the river and promote economic development?

Park: The “Han River Renaissance Master Plan” has its own meaning. The Han River is a source of life for Seoulites. The initial purpose of the project for citizens to have easy access to the river was right. However, I think it should have been focused more on ecological improvement rather than developing it in a way of producing hardware. Recovering the Cheonggye Stream (which flows along the downtown areas) was also a great and inevitable choice. However, the city hurriedly proceeded with the project and as a result failed to recover the stream in its original shape but ended up creating an artificial one.

Herald: Some are blaming weirs in the Han River for the recent algal blooms that threatened the public health and eco-system. What is your take on this?

Park: More scientific research is needed. But basically streams or rivers should flow, that is natural. Dams or weirs surely play positive roles such as preventing floods, generating electricity, and providing farming water. But those structures also have negative effects like nutrient enrichment that causes blue-green algal blooms. There are many dams built in the upper part of the Han River. The algal blooms that recently swarmed the capital’s river actually flowed down from the upper streams. I do not mean to tear down all the dams. What I mean is we should know better about why that happened and find solutions to it.

Herald: What is the city’s plan for the floating island project in the Han River?

Park: The project has come to a standstill for several reasons and has become a burden for the city. In the worst case, more than 100 billion won may have to be poured into it. I hope the city and the firm in charge of the construction can complete it and come up with measures regarding how to use the artificial islands.

The construction process stopped just before it was completed. And many obstacles are still ahead of the artificial islands. The relation between the city and the firm has gotten worse (over contract terms), it is not clear what kind of business can be run on them and whether the business can be in the black. The project cannot be ignored even though it is flawed. It should be normalized as soon as possible.

Herald: The city has announced a variety of plans to cut carbon emissions. But doubts linger over the efficiency of renewable energy sources. What are the major obstacles to your vision for an eco-friendly city? It is said that the city has scaled back its plan to promote electric cars on the roads. What is your future plan for them?

Park: If investment in renewable energy guarantees high returns, the city does not need to get involved. Since it does not, the city is trying to take the initiative. When it comes to photovoltaic energy, the feed in tariff system has been adopted in Germany, and Japan will likely restart the system again after the nuclear crisis. The former government had adopted the system but the current government stopped it. As I said before, renewable energy business is not that profitable, so help from the central government can make up some losses. I think that help is necessary for the fledgling business.

Participation of private firms is also encouraging. Hanhwa Solar, a solar panel producer, will invest 300 billion won in the city’s solar business as the firm will focus on the renewable energy business.

Electric cars create less pollution than gas-powered vehicles, but the electricity needed for the electric cars is also produced by power plants using fossil fuels.

Electric cars can be easily spotted on the roads in cities like Rio de Janeiro. They run on electricity generated by hydropower. That is more environment friendly than others. Since Seoul is in different circumstances, it is hard to focus only on electric cars.

The photovoltaic generation is a worldwide phenomenon even though some difficulties can be found because of the overproduction of related products. If there is support from the central government, photovoltaic generation is possible in Korea. Korea generates, as far as I know, less than 5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

The city also makes efforts to foster other methods of generating electricity such as hydrogen power. Going ahead of the times accompanies difficulties and inconveniences. However, those who preoccupy the market gain benefits. For example, Samsung took risks when it first started its semiconductor business. Now it outruns its rivals such as Sony, Ericson, and Nokia. Central and local governments can learn from it. Korea is far behind in the renewable energy sector.

Herald: What does welfare mean to you?

Park: Welfare is a key to overcoming problems we face now. There is one thing that industrial development cannot guarantee: the future. Nursery services will safely take care of infants so that parents can do more social activities. That will help raise children’s creativity. The hidden positive effects of welfare services are enormous.

The city will decide on which welfare services to provide with the help of the citizens. Making the city a good place to live, a good place to work, and a good place to dream are the things Seoul should keep working for.

Herald: Budget issues often come into the limelight and it is said the city lacks money to support the free nursery services for infants under 2. Is this true?

Park: Since local governments do not usually have a large budget, they should ponder welfare policies such as free education and free nursery services over and over before adopting them. The recent controversy over the lack of the budget in the free nursery services for infants from birth to 2 years old happened because of the decision made by the central government and the National Assembly, which did not take situations in the field much into consideration.

Seoul City has a lot more babies than other regions. Parents in areas such as Seocho-gu, a wealthy district, think “Why not take it?” I personally think infants around those ages should be taken care of by their parents for better personality development. Since the central government did not see what is really going on, the district governments cannot afford the free nursery services from August or September.

Local governments should be given more rights and trust since they know better what is actually going on in the field. I also listen to district offices, experts and civic groups as much as possible. I believe that makes policies gain more support and approval.

Herald: What plans do you have to attract more foreign investment and make the city more attractive?

Park: If companies invest in Seoul City, they will not regret it 10 years later, when the city will become the most business-friendly and rapidly growing city.

First, Seoul has a geopolitical advantage as it is surrounded by Asian cities with a high growth potential. It takes less than three hours to get to them from Seoul.

That is why Incheon International Airport has become one of the top international airports in the world in terms of trade volume.

Second, it is one of the most vibrant cities. Its information technology is the world’s best and often becomes a test bed for a new technology. That is why more research and development centers are opening in the city.

Third, Seoul City has many landmarks which make the city an attractive place to live. Bukhan Mountain, the Han River, you name it. The city also has many talented human resources and a lot of potential that fits 21-century industries. The city has already outrun rival cities in Asia like Tokyo in some aspects and is catching up with cities like Hong Kong and Singapore.

The city is now developing business areas in Sangam and Magok districts, both in western Seoul, in which the city hopes to attract research and development firms and other technology companies. The Toray Advanced Materials Korea Inc. has already shown interest in investing in the Magok district.

The city government also has good international schools and will support them further. The city will also help foreign residents to overcome the language barrier.