Special lecture on building village communities
Date: March 5, 2012
Venue: Seoul Human Resource Development Center
I believe that most people think the same way when they are desperate. And as rattlesnakes can recognize each other from 10 ri (3.9 kilometers) away, humans have developed the ability to communicate without speaking, in a manner. Therefore, I think you can sense my desperation right now.
I would like to ask you one very important question. What do you live for? Only when you know the answer to this question can you know what others live for, or what they truly desire. Then you can help them realize their desires and achieve their dreams.
What do Seoul’s citizens desire the most? (Happiness) That’s correct. It’s happiness. But few people know what they truly desire. When asked what they live for, many say money, wealth, or power. But, I think what people really want is happiness.
In the past, however, it was definitely money. When many Koreans were poor and starving, we needed and dreamed of abundant food, a large house, and a good school. But now that so many people have acquired these things, we must ask ourselves another question, “Why do we live like this?” Our parents wanted higher incomes, and they valued the GDP, or national income, as an indicator of Korea’s national growth and development.
Then, advanced countries with the highest GDPs began looking to the National Happiness Index as a better measure of happiness. Last year, before I was elected mayor, Goo Morgan invited me to a conference. Goo Morgan is the leader of an organization based in the U.K. and former policy director for Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is known for creating the future vision of the Labor Party. The theme of the conference was the development of the Happiness Index, and I learned that the OECD is now working on developing the index to replace the GDP as the main indicator of happiness. That is how I became so interested in the Happiness Index.
If I hadn’t been so busy running for mayor, I would have traveled to Bhutan. I was particularly interested in visiting the Hope Institute there. Many countries are striving to attract more tourists, but Bhutan strictly limits the number of tourists and requires visitors to pay fees in advance. A female intern at The Hope Institute was from Bhutan, and with her help and guidance, I was planning to write a book during ten days in Bhutan and take a trekking trip to Kathmandu, Nepal, which is not very far from Bhutan.
So, how can we create more happiness? A substantial amount of research has been done on happiness, and of course, it indicates that national income is a major factor. But it is not the only factor. While reading this book, I found that the most significant factor in achieving happiness is relationships. In other words, if we want to be happy, we must avoid alienation and loneliness, but our modern society tends to promote alienation. You all know that Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Many people here commit suicide due to poverty, but more often, they do it because they are lonely, especially among the elderly. As such, allowing people to live together with others in a community and feel a sense of belonging is a major task for our country. The more someone feels like they belong, the less likely they are to consider suicide.
A feeling of connectedness and belonging to a local community is incredibly important. I’m sure many of you remember what Korea was like in the past, except the younger generation. In my case, I grew up in a very poor rural village in the 1960s. People were struggling with impoverishment, and in spring, we often ran out of rice and barley. Nevertheless, whenever beggars came to our door, we never rejected them. When they came at meal time, we would give them a bowl of rice mixed with water. Though everyone was quite poor, none of the village residents starved to death. In our house, we had a sarangbang, a kind of guest room, where my father always slept, and my mother usually stayed in the main part of the house. The men of the village often gathered and talked in our sarangbang late into the night. In those days, my father did various odd jobs, including making straw rope. Sometimes, when strangers came to our home, my father let them in and gave them a place to sleep next to him. Do we welcome strangers into our homes like that these days? I think most people do not. Our world has become so dark and dreary, and people do not trust each other anymore. In a world like this, we cannot be happy.
It is particularly interesting that when I travel to developed countries and their cities, the people living in the villages and neighborhoods there are much more generous than ours. Whenever I ask them for help, they are incredibly kind and give me excellent guidance. European cities are particularly friendly. If you have traveled to such places, I’m sure you have noticed this. When I had difficulties and asked other drivers or shopkeepers for assistance, they were incredibly helpful. But in Korea, we do not even know who our own neighbors are or what is going on in our communities.
This is a problem many societies are now facing. When I visited Seoul’s Seongmisan community for interview, one of the most successful and thriving neighborhood communities in the city, I talked with Mr. Yu Chang-bok in a small café there. At one point while we were talking, he saw a child pass by the window and muttered, “Ah, that child’s class is not over yet.” I was impressed by how well he knows what is happening in his neighborhood and how well all the residents know each other. In a community like this, crime, such as murder, is virtually non-existent, and the residents live with the comfort of knowing they are safe.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government and gu offices spend 26 percent of their budget on welfare. With that money, they build senior citizens centers, welfare facilities for the elderly, daycare centers, and facilities for people with disabilities, but the operation of these facilities is not coordinated. In particular, the welfare facilities for senior citizens are like prisons for them. Some social welfare specialists even say that the kkotdongne (government-supported welfare institution run by Catholic priests to help the needy) amounts to anti-welfare. Why is that? Unless our senior citizens are allowed to engage in productive activities and develop their skills, they will not be happy. No matter how good the facilities they live in are, it will seem like a prison to them. Do you see what I mean?
The ideal welfare facility is an entire community. Through community relationships, people gain happiness and a sense of identity. But if they live alone, they become sick and unhappy. In neighborhood communities, everyone lives together—grandparents, children, and even the disabled. The elderly tell children the stories of their youth, and children show off their talents. I wish everyone could live together like this. I think that the welfare system of our country is completely misguided, because it does not aspire to this. A well-functioning local village community provides true welfare, and the Local Community Welfare Center is a part of the effort to achieve this.
Life is meant to be lived together, not separated from others. During my childhood, the other children and I used to play outside and eat or sleep at our friends’ homes. All the residents of the village took care of us. If I did something wrong, the grandmothers or grandfathers of my neighbors scolded me. Nowadays, if you scold your neighbors’ child, you might actually get slapped in the face. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Each village is a microcosm of India,” and I believe this to be true for the villages, communities, and cities of all countries. Amid the diversity of a community, we learn how to live, but now that we have lost many of our communities, there are many who learn how to live only by reading books in libraries. But we cannot learn about life holed up in a library. In the past, we learned about life without a college education. By meeting and gaining experiences with the various people within our neighborhoods, we built strong relationships with each other. However, these days, people have forgotten how to make relationships with others. In particular, we have lost the personality traits and leadership skills that help us lead a good life. Therefore, I believe that true welfare can be achieved through communities.
A strong local community helps create jobs and promote the economy. In Korea, large businesses have made significant contributions, but they fail to recognize that society is like a living organism. For example, in a pond, there is a food chain—an ecosystem—including everything from plankton to large snakeheads (a kind of fish). If we were to put only snakeheads in a pond, they would not survive, because all members of the ecosystem depend on one another. In reservoirs or lakes, there is a surprisingly large number of interdependent organisms living and growing together. Societies and economies are like this as well. A large corporation cannot exist alone; it must co-exist with small neighborhood shops and traditional markets. If we value only efficiency, then bigger is better. But there is much more of value in our society than that. As you all know, Korea’s industrial structure is vulnerable to external shock, and Seoul is particularly vulnerable. Also, it seems like the Korean economy is growing without creating jobs, and thus economic growth is not benefiting the residents of small communities.
Meanwhile, countries with well-established small- and medium-sized businesses enjoy economic stability. These countries include Taiwan and many European countries and cities, such as Bologna. They are achieving solid economic growth and are relatively insulated from external shocks. Mondragon, in Spain, is well-known for its cooperatives, which employ about 100,000 people and even launch satellites into orbit. In the absence of large corporations, the cooperatives there are embracing the livelihoods of the residents and protecting their economic security.
The United Nations has proclaimed 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. But in Korea, there are very few cooperatives of any kind, while Europe has numerous housing cooperatives, accounting for 25 percent of all cooperatives. As a result, housing speculation is relatively non-existent in Europe. Such is the strength of the cooperatives. In Japan, I noticed that the biggest buildings in front of major stations are usually the Consumers Cooperatives Union buildings. What about in Korea? The largest building I found in front of a railway station is a department store. In Fukuoka, Japan, about two million households are members of the Green co-op cooperatives. The economies of such countries are very stable.
Now, let us consider housing for moment. Our so-called “New Town” districts have been designated and developed without any consideration of communities or community spirit. And which companies are building these New Towns? They are the construction companies of large conglomerates such as Hyundai, Samsung, and GS Group. Suppose we were to develop the Baeksa village or Jangsu village areas in Seongbuk-gu into village communities. Instead of completely demolishing the existing houses and building large apartment buildings, we would repair or renovate them. If we did so, what companies would we work with? We would go to the local shops that sell PVC pipes or other construction materials, reviving the local economy in the process.
I do not argue that large businesses should not exist, just that they need to grow globally, leaving small companies to reinvigorate neighborhood economies. If I had not been elected mayor, I would have used my time to carry out extensive research on the operation of cooperatives. Since lawyers possess valuable professional knowledge, the legal fees they charge are very high, and the general public has no choice but to pay what they demand. To relieve this burden, I would organize a “legal consumer cooperative” with 100,000 members, and it would provide legal services to citizens at a much more reasonable cost. Car repair shops are another issue. Mechanics sometimes charge considerably high prices, but many people cannot know whether the repairs were done correctly. In Japan, they have the Shaken Cooperative—an automobile inspection cooperative—that protects consumers of automobile repairs. I have prepared a plan to establish a similar automobile inspection cooperative in Korea. I believe with these two ideas alone, we could create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
I had a meeting with the director of the Policy Division this morning, and it was clear that there are plenty of jobs that can be created. So, I asked him to conduct job expos on various themes. We can create jobs through neighborhood community initiatives and recycling projects. For example, in Europe, early in the morning, you can find many farmers markets and flea markets opening their doors. In the U.K., there is a weekend market stretching about 10 kilometers, with mobile vendors selling products out of their cars. There are people selling old maps, candlesticks, and dishes, to name only a few. Antic shops alone could create tens of thousands jobs nationwide. Urban agriculture could also provide plenty of new jobs. As the five-day school week is implemented at schools in Korea, our children will need more fun and interesting activities to occupy their time, creating more business opportunities, such as a business teaching them about the dignity of life.
If I could make my own neighborhood in Seoul, I would make one with around 30 used book stores. Each book store would have its own specialty—poems, novels, or foreign books, for example. This alone would make the neighborhood well-known among the residents of Seoul. Similarly, another neighborhood could specialize in handicrafts. That would attract a lot of tourists. Or we could imagine a neighborhood of flowers, where all the houses along the small streets are covered with rose bushes. There are many parks in the U.K. with wonderful rose gardens. Keukenhof, in the Netherlands, is a village famous for planting tulips in rice paddies, thus filling each field with the same color tulip. We could do the same with a rose garden in Guro-gu. I think it would become famous quite quickly. These kinds of activities would increase spending and revitalize the economies of local communities.
The other day, I went to Seoul City Wall. The landscape of the wall was really beautiful, and I thought that we should redevelop the neighborhoods near the wall as well, not just restore the wall itself. We could have cafés and secondhand bookstores set up shop all along the 18-kilometer wall, reviving the neighborhoods all throughout the area. I am currently carrying out a study on how we can invigorate communities near Seoul City Wall. Recently, we held a seminar on reducing energy consumption in Seoul by an amount equivalent to that produced by one nuclear power plant. In connection with this, I learned of a village called Seongdaegol in Sangdo 3-dong. The housewives have united to establish energy conservation measures in their neighborhood, and their efforts are resulting in substantial energy savings. If we establish similar energy self-sufficient neighborhoods in Seoul, I believe this would attract many visitors. I also visited Dandelion Village in Hamyang, where everyone is engaged in energy saving efforts.
In order to successfully undertake such initiatives, it is important to have a good neighborhood leader. Performing the job of a neighborhood leader can be more difficult than serving as the president of a country. There is an old saying, “When cousin buys a real estate, you get a stomachache,” meaning we feel jealous of our neighbor’s success, which explains why it is often difficult for people in one neighborhood to work together. I would like to tell you about Ju Hyeong-no, head of the village in Hongdeok-myeon, Hongseong-gun. He had completed only up to high school, having been the last of 14 students to pass the entrance examination. But, the president of the school told him, “You have great potential for improvement since you got 20 points on the first examination. I’m sure you can improve your score by 80 points.” So the president brought him books whenever he returned from a visit to Japan. While reading those books, Ju learned how to increase rice yields using ducks. Thanks to his efforts, Korea now has a larger area of rice paddies using ducks than Japan. Ju told me that as head of the village, it was very difficult to coordinate interests and resolve conflicts among the villagers.
There is also the case of Daraengyi Village, in Namhae. As it was largely dependent on agriculture, the village was particularly vulnerable to drought, and the people often complained about the drought-prone location of their village. However, as the scenery of the rice paddies was so beautiful, tourists started visiting this place, and many of them stayed overnight. To capitalize on this, the head of the village launched a website for accommodations in the village, while refraining from running such business himself, as he worried the villagers would doubt his intentions. However, the residents who did not operate any lodging grew unhappy. So, half of the income from the lodging businesses was collected into a village fund, and as the elderly residents passed away, day laborers were hired to handle the farm work. This village leader was truly wonderful, and I have included this story in my book. It is an example of the proper mindset of a village leader. In Seoul, I think we have many such leaders in our neighborhoods and communities.
Since I was elected mayor, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has been speaking of village communities quite often. The idea of a village community sounds unfamiliar to many, but in fact, it is more familiar to us than we realize as it is the kind of place where we were born and lived as children. But for the past several decades, we have abandoned our neighbors in order to make a living, and no longer know where our children spend their time. We have abandoned happiness, and are taking a path leading us in what I believe to be the wrong direction. There is still value in “community”. Although we use the word “community,” we have forgotten the meaning of “village community,” but it will come back to us soon.
There is one way to solve many of the problems we now face, and that is to restore our local communities. We have invested a lot in festivals, but have we incorporated festivals into our culture? A festival is born through tradition, history, and the common experiences of a neighborhood. A good festival cannot be created in a place where there is no active village community. Everything leads to the village.
I believe that our society will change very rapidly in the next five years, during which time Korean society will have come to place as much emphasis on “community” as any other advanced country. Whether I like it or not, Korean society is making U-turn. It is what some call a “mega trend”.