First Politician of the Occupy Era?

by John Feffer, Alex Doherty

Korea expert John Feffer discusses the recent election of the radical leftist Park Won Soon as the new mayor of Seoul.

First published: 22 November, 2011 | Category: International

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty on the recent mayoral election in Seoul.

In a recent article you said that Park Won Soon, the newly elected mayor of Seoul, is "perhaps the first politician to win with an Occupy Wall Street platform". Can you tell us about about the platform Park Won Soon ran on - what are his key policies and what is his relationship to the occupy movement?


Park Won Soon ran on a platform of social justice. The previous mayor of Seoul had resigned over the issue of school lunches, Park pushed for the universal provision of lunches to all Seoul school children. He also promised to direct social services to helping the poor and disadvantaged. Korea has become increasingly divided in terms of rich and poor, and Seoul has some of the richest and some of the poorest people in the country. Park pledged to be the mayor of all of Seoul and not just the wealthy. His opponent Na Kyung-won was a wealthy businesswoman. The Park campaign characterized her as part of the 1 percent, whereas Park himself would represent the 99 percent. The OWS movement in Korea hasn't been particularly large. About 250 protesters gathered in front of the Financial Services Commission for a weekend of demonstrations in the middle of October. But since then, the focus of the movement for economic justice has been defeating the KORUS Free Trade Agreement.

Could you describe the detail of the KORUS FTA and what scale of opposition is there to the FTA in Korea?

The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) has long been in the process of negotiation. Started under the George W. Bush administration, this FTA attracted considerable opposition among U.S. politicians, including Senator Barack Obama, for its provisions concerning cars and beef and the lack of strong environmental and labor clauses. Obama, as president, managed to achieve a measure of bipartisan support for the agreement, and a renegotiated version passed Congress in October. It now awaits ratification by the Korean parliament.

The FTA would reduce trade barriers between the two countries, which would increase the exports of U.S. cars and agricultural products to Korea. Farmers and trade unions in South Korea have opposed the agreement. There is also considerable concern about provisions that protect investor rights, which could be used by corporations to sue the Korean government over regulations that purportedly interfere with the bottom line. The opposition party has seized on the FTA as a stick with which to beat the current Lee Myung Bak government over the head, demanding that the government renegotiate certain provisions, particularly around investor rights.

What is the political background of Park Won Soon and what about the political orientation of his supporters?

Park Won Soon is a long-time civic activist who was expelled from school in the mid-1970s for his student activism. Later, as a human rights lawyer, he was active in the democratization movement of the 1980s. In 1994, he helped found one of the pivotal civil society organizations in South Korea: People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD). This organization focused on expanding the notion of democracy beyond the narrow definition of voting. In those early days of Korean democracy, and to a certain extent even today, Korean politics is rather opaque, still subject to the influence of powerful families and wealthy chaebols (conglomerates). PSPD has done much to bring transparency to government and to dispel what Koreans call jeongkyung yuchak (political-economic collusion). After PSPD, he went on to create the Beautiful Foundation and a thinktank called Hope, both devoted to principles of economic justice and sustainability.

Park's supporters, during his mayoralty race, extended far beyond his civil society followers. Many Koreans are disgusted with political as usual. They dislike the ruling Grand National Party. But many are not particularly happy about the opposition either. They supported Park because he is not a politician. Much of his support came from younger voters.

How powerful is the position of Mayor of Seoul within Korea? How much room does he have to manoeuvre with a conservative president in power?

Seoul is a huge city, one of the top ten in the world. If you include the greater metropolitan area, it's the second largest city in the world after Tokyo. Approximately one-fifth of the South Korean population lives within the city limits. Seoul sets the tone for the rest of the country. When the previous president tried to relocate several government ministries outside of Seoul, in order to lessen the power of the city, the proposal never got anywhere. The current president Lee Myung Bak was once the mayor of Seoul, and there he established his reputation for big projects (re-establishing, for instance, the Cheonggyecheon, the river that historically ran through the city but had been covered up by years of urban renewal). Lee used his position as mayor as a springboard for the presidency.

The presidential election is next year and Lee can't run again. Moreover, his popularity is very low. So, it's not clear if he can do much in his last year or so in office. Park, on the other hand, will serve the final two years of the previous mayor's term. During that time, he can definitely do a great deal in terms of shifting the priorities of municipal government. He will come up against considerable resistance, not so much from the conservative president as from bureaucracies that are not enthusiastic about change.

What are the key grievances amongst the electorate that have helped propel Won Soon into power?

The school lunch program, as I mentioned, was a pivotal issue. But so was the cost of university education, the quality of government services for the disadvantaged, and the availability of affordable housing. Overall, however, the issue of economic inequality has become increasingly important. South Korea 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. This is why the Occupy Wall Street message resonates in Korea, though it has largely taken the form of protests against the KORUS FTA and, in the most recent election, the victory of Park Won Soon for mayor of Seoul.

Has Won Soon expressed any opinions vis a vis the South's relationship with North Korea and Korea's relationship with the United States?

Park Won Soon has pointed out what many South Koreans have come to realize over the last several years: the Lee Myung Bak policy of confronting North Korea with harsh rhetoric and military containment policies has not worked. Even members of Lee Myung Bak's own party have come to this realization, including Park Geun-Hye, the likely GNP candidate in the next presidential election. As for the South's relationship with the United States, Park has to be careful not to jeopardize all the U.S. investment in Seoul or to antagonize the U.S. military presence in the city. Nevertheless, he has spoken out against the FTA, saying "If the free trade agreement takes effect, American companies and the U.S. government can seek international arbitration against the Korean central and provincial governments, which is worrisome." He has also, in the past, talked about the importance of the U.S. military taking responsibility for the environmental clean-up of U.S. bases in Korea. 

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