Interview with the British magazine Monocle
Date: May 6, 2013
Venue: Mayor’s Office, Seoul City Hall
What efforts are you making to improve the standard of living in Seoul? What do you think might be some solutions to the overpopulation problem?
Fundamentally, the most important thing is that the citizens of Seoul are happy. Making Seoul a city worth living in is probably my most fundamental and ultimate goal.
The issue of overpopulation must be examined from various angles. Overpopulation in Seoul does have its down sides, but it is also a great source of power. More than 10 million of the some 50 million people in Korea currently live in Seoul. Looking at the trend of Seoul’s population increase over the years, we see that there was a rapid exodus of people from rural areas to Seoul in the 1960s, which was a result of the nation’s economic development, but recently, we have been seeing a decline in Seoul’s population.
Statistics show just how rapidly Seoul’s population increased. There were 2.45 million people in Seoul in 1960, 8.36 million in 1980, 10.28 million in 2003, and 10.46 million in 2009. But recently, due to low fertility rates and migration caused by the construction of new cities, Seoul’s population has started to decline, and as of end of June 2012, it is home to 10.23 million people.
As so many people flocked to the city, Seoul became the driver of growth in the country’s politics, economy, and culture. At the same time, the demands of and conflicts among its citizens grew. Nevertheless, urbanization was a major global phenomenon of the 21st century, and today, about 60 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. Therefore, the future of large cities will play an important part in the future of all humankind.
Moving from the private to the public sector—as a social innovator to the mayor of Seoul—I have experienced, and thus emphasized, the importance of communication, cooperation, and sharing among different sectors in order to resolve complicated social problems and effect new change.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government will remain committed to the construction of efficient and productive cooperative relationships among the various government ministries, private businesses, and citizens in order to solve the various problems faced by the massive city of Seoul and enhance the quality of the citizens’ lives.
What are the vision and goals of Seoul’s environmental policy?
Under the initiative “Seoul, the global climate and environment capital,” where the city produces energy and resources are recycled and circulated, we are building a climate and environment governance system based on private-public-industry cooperation. With our determination to replace 2 million TOE of energy through the use of new and renewable energy sources, such as solar power, we are pursuing the “One Less Nuclear Power Plant” project, showing that we have gone beyond merely conserving energy.
By promoting a culture of reuse and recycling, Seoul will become the world’s number one recycling city, and by reducing air pollution to create a more comfortable and healthy urban living environment, Seoul is rising as a major eco-friendly city, in which its 10 million citizens are happy to live and many people hope to visit.
Can you briefly explain the background and goals of Seoul’s energy policy, the “One Less Nuclear Power Plant” project?
We must never forget the tragedy that befell our neighbors in Fukushima when they suffered the effects of a nuclear power plant catastrophe. But we must also learn from that tragedy. There is an increasing interest in safe energy, and people want to slow global warming by reducing greenhouse gases, thereby allowing the next generation to live safe and healthy lives. This is why we are pursuing the “One Less Nuclear Power Plant” project.
Seoul’s energy consumption accounts for 10.9 percent of that of the entire country, and that proportion is growing every year. However, the production of new and renewable energy accounts for only 1.5 percent of our energy consumption, with our total energy self-sufficiency reaching only 2.8%.
The “One Less Nuclear Power Plant” project aims to reduce our energy consumption by 2 million TOE and decrease the import of crude oil by KRW 2.8 trillion every year from 2014. This will see our greenhouse gas emissions drop by 6.06 million tons, which is equivalent to planting a forest 1,295 times the size of Yeouido.
The significance of this project is that, through it, Seoul will become a global metropolitan city where the citizens, despite the inconvenience, cheerfully participate in energy conservation efforts for the sake of their future. It will be a city that produces energy using solar power plants installed on every building rooftop, thereby achieving, with citizen participation, a miracle in energy production and conservation.
What is the future direction and plan for Seoul’s emphasis on the environment?
Seoul is a city with excellent environmental resources. It is surrounded by the Naesasan (four internal mountains) and Woesasan (four external mountains) and a national park, and the amazing, thriving Hangang River flows through the city, but Seoul has failed to realize its full potential. I would like to speak about that for a moment.
I hope to rebuild Seoul as a city with a beautiful natural environment and an excellent standard of living. At every step throughout this process, I will gather citizens’ opinions and encourage greater citizen participation, with the hope of achieving my dream of making Seoul the climate and environment capital of the world.
In addition, we are working hard to increase citizen participation in voluntary reuse and recycling activities so that Seoul may become on of the world’s most successful cities in terms of resource circulation.
Every Sunday, we hold the “Hope Sharing Marketplace” in Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul, and every third Sunday, the market is expanded to the Sejongro Pedestrian Zone to further promote the reuse and recycling of resources.
By promoting an energy conservation culture where the citizens themselves bring about changes that transform the city and create a culture in which sharing and recycling is more important than possession, we are ensuring the efficient use of energy and resources and creating a consumption culture that cares not only about Seoul but the entire world as well. Through the efforts, Seoul will become a dynamic city where recycling and energy efficiency initiatives vitalize industries.
What can other rapidly growing Asian cities learn from Seoul?
Seoul managed to survive numerous crises thanks to its unique dynamism and creativity. Based on these two qualities, it has continuously pursued innovation and achieved greater prosperity.
Korea is a peninsula located between Japan and China. This is a region where political, naval, and continental forces collide, creating significant anxiety. But Seoul has managed to transform that anxiety into its own unique dynamism.
Korea’s geopolitical location also plays a positive role as it acts as a corridor between these two conflicting forces. Described as a kind of “hub,” we believe our country is a pathway for the dissemination of civilization.
In order to expand such positivity, we must invest in our people, and this is expressed through our fervor for education, which is a unique attribute of Korean society. But now, times are changing. Recently, we held a seminar for research centers in Seoul and Beijing, where someone said, “We have caught up, to a certain extent, to the West in terms of modernization. We have succeeded, but the great accomplishments we have made in such a short time are making our lives unstable and unhappy. We now need a second era of modernization, one that begins in the East. This is the role Asian cities must play.”
Seoul has accumulated considerable expertise throughout its period of development, and as was expressed at the seminar, we feel a responsibility to share our experience with cities not only in Asia but all around the world.
What impact did moving the central government to Sejong City have on Seoul?
Balanced regional development is a fundamental factor in a country’s development. Therefore, I believe moving the administration to Sejong City was beneficial. The distance is roughly equivalent to that between Washington and New York or Washington and Boston.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government needs to cooperate with the central government on numerous matters. From improving North-South relations to issues of universal welfare, where we must care for the well-being of every individual citizen, cooperation and communication between the local and central governments are essential. However, this cooperation is unaffected by location.
What has been your greatest achievement during your time in office so far? What do you want to maintain, without changing, until the end of your term as mayor?
Many of our achievements come to mind, such as designing the exit strategy for the New Town project, transitioning irregular workers to regular employees, halving university tuition, improving the city’s sidewalks, and even, the operation of the Night Owl buses.
But above all, I am proud of having improved Seoul’s administration by increasing the participation of citizens and experts, and having worked long and hard based on sound principles and common sense, even though it was more time consuming.