KÉ Interview: If South Korea Wants to Change, Transform Seoul

KÉ Interview: If South Korea Wants to Change, Transform Seoul

Ben Jackson
Ben Jackson

On Jun. 13, South Korea is holding nationwide local elections. For the first time since its foundation in 2012, Green Party Korea candidates will appear on ballot papers across the country. The Green Party is a massive underdog in an electoral system that favors the two largest parties, the left-leaning Democratic Party and the conservative Liberty Korea. 

27-year-old Shin Ji-ye is the Green Party’s provisional candidate for the position of Seoul mayor. This position is seen as one of the most important political positions in the country, where around half of its 51.25 million population lives in Seoul or the areas surrounding it.  

“Most problems in South Korean society start in Seoul.” Shin Ji-ye

Shin will have a tough job competing, even if her candidacy is confirmed. Not just because the current mayor, Park Won-soon (Democratic Party), is widely expected to run for a third term in office and enjoys poll ratings far ahead of other prospective candidates. Shin’s road will be hard because the Green Party is such a minor player in an electoral climate not kind to smaller parties — it has no seats in the National Assembly and just over 10,000 members nationwide (for comparison, the ruling Democratic Party has over 1 million). 

Founded in 2012, the party ran three candidates in parliamentary elections in the same year but was disbanded after failing to reach a mandatory 0.5 percent share of the national vote. After officially re-launching later that year, the party is now taking a local approach, fielding candidates for some 15 local authority positions across the country.

The Green Party may not win, but its platform for the June elections offer a valuable glimpse into the growing concerns of the country’s youngest, most progressive population.

Shin believes she has a chance of winning Seoul. Three months before the vote, we met in the offices of Today Maker, Shin’s fledgling 3D printer manufacturing company, to hear more about her radical vision for one of Asia’s biggest cities and the heart of South Korea.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.  


Korea Exposé: If confirmed, is it true that you will be the youngest Seoul mayoral candidate in history?

Yes. In South Korea you can only run for election from the age of 25. I don’t think 27 is young. But in South Korea, especially in politics, it’s regarded as a young age.

When you announced your candidacy, you said that green change needs to start in Seoul. Why Seoul?

Most problems in South Korean society start in Seoul. The national structure now is such that the provinces all work to support Seoul. That goes for the economy and energy.

Provincial authorities often model their policies on Seoul’s. For example, many of them are introducing cash subsidy schemes for unemployed young people based on the Seoul system. That’s the political paradigm we have now.

Seoul isn’t managing its vision for the future properly. There are constant clashes when it comes to the vision of what the city will look like in 20 or 30 years.

Seoul and South Korea need restructuring. We especially need perspectives that include the people we label as socially vulnerable.

Seoul is the epicenter of South Korea’s political, cultural, economic trends, as well as its many demonstrations. (Se-Woong Koo/Korea Exposé)

What are the key elements of your manifesto?

The core issues I want to talk about are rampant development, fine dust, and sexual minorities and women.

My manifesto is divided into four categories: One, an equal city with no exclusion. Two, a city where you can live in comfort without owning things. Three, a city that’s abundant but not obese. Four, a safe city that doesn’t put off solving problems.

At the basis of these four categories is calling upon Seoul citizens who weren’t previously consulted for specific policy-making. Until now, South Korean society has failed to escape the economic growth-first paradigm that has held back and excluded so many socially vulnerable people: money before people; the economy before the environment.

We want to devolve and disperse the power, money, economic and energy systems currently held by Seoul.

How will you further devolve power, beyond Seoul’s existing 25 districts?

Seoul currently has about 10 million citizens, which I think makes it an unreasonably obese city. A big population means a lot of power. In South Korea, the tax system is centered on local residents so that wealthier areas inevitably get more power.

We will redistribute the budget to allow Seoul citizens to relocate to the provinces, supporting them with policies such as basic income.

Until now, South Korean society has failed to escape the economic growth-first paradigm…money before people; the economy before the environment.” Shin Ji-ye

What do you plan to do about fine dust?

Recent research has shown that a lot of fine dust in Seoul comes from construction sites, not roads. We need to manage dust generation at building sites, and from dumper trucks.

There will be short- and long-term policies. In the short term, on days when fine dust levels are very high, we need to ban vehicular traffic altogether. In the long term, we need to eliminate non-road sources, in ways like avoiding large-scale construction projects and ensuring that water is sprinkled on building sites to stop the dust flying.

Aging diesel vehicles are also an issue. We need to provide subsidies so that owners get rid of diesel vehicles quickly once they get old, and to help people buy filters for their diesel vehicles.

Most important is getting people into a mindset of not using cars.

Seoul. (Credit: Eugene Lee)

Mayor Park Won-soon has excluded an anti-discrimination clause, particularly for sexual minorities, from the Seoul Charter of Human Rights. LGBT rights is a particularly sensitive issue in South Korean politics (president Moon Jae-in doesn’t openly support it). What’s your stance on this issue?

I think that’s one of Park Won-soon’s biggest mistakes. He’s a former human rights lawyer. He knows about sexual minorities, and what a deeply-rooted structural problem this is. It’s highly problematic that he removed sexual minorities from the human rights charter.

I think this is a limitation of [Park’s] Democratic Party. They have to get votes from conservative Christian groups in order to maintain their support. But Park could still have made a courageous decision — it’s a shame he didn’t. That’s why, as I said before, it’s impossible for one single person to change an establishment party.

Read more about LGBT rights in South Korea: “Growing Up Gay and Korean

Will the Green Party put the sexual minorities clause back in the human rights charter?

Yes, of course.

Do you have other anti-discrimination policies too?

At the state level, an anti-discrimination law has been stuck in the National Assembly [since 2007]. It’s important that we get it passed. And whether that happens or not, we need to include anti-discrimination content in the Seoul charter.

At the city government level, we can issue marriage certificates to people from sexual minorities, even if they’re not legally valid. And I think Seoul’s public housing allocation for newly married couples should also be made available to sexual minorities.

You propose universal basic income, with each everybody receiving 400,000 won a month. Where would the money come from?

We would levy a special environmental tax on companies for products and activities that negatively affect soil and water, and divert money currently used on road construction projects.

Machines are already starting to replace people in jobs. Demanding that jobs are created for young people, and claiming that the myth of total employment can become a reality, is now borderline delusional. It’s impossible. In the long term, we need to move to a basic income, and I think the transition period is already here.

Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul. (Source: hangidan via Flickr, CC BY SA-2.0)

South Korea has an interesting voter landscape. Those with less property and lower income tend to be more conservative, voting for parties with business-friendly proposals, as opposed to greater social welfare. Why do you think these people aren’t voting for parties with progressive platforms like yours?

I think the electoral system plays a big role. At the moment, South Korea has a winner-takes-all system. Only people that take first place get elected.

This is a question the Green Party always faces at elections: People say the party is great, has good policies and good people, but that they have to vote for the Democratic Party if they want to stop the Liberty Party getting into power. [Editor’s Note: South Korea’s two biggest parties.] Otherwise, they think their vote will end up wasted. It’s the electoral system that gives them that attitude. So reforming it is really important.

There is a proportional representation for National Assembly and in local elections, but the proportion is so small that it’s practically a sham system. A lot of seats go to constituency lawmakers, which use a winner-takes-all system. This means it’s very easy for candidates from the Democratic Party and the Liberty Korea Party.

So we think the system needs to be changed from two-member constituencies to four-member constituencies, so that people aren’t forced to vote for one or other of the two main parties.

I think people’s paradigms of consciousness are now shifting so that they realize that breathing is really important too.” Shin Ji-ye on fine dust

How will you overcome the prejudice that environmentalist parties don’t understand the economy and can’t be trusted to run it?

I think environmental issues are economic issues. In places where the economy and development are put first, the majority of people are held back and excluded. Politics is about whether you’ll make a fair and happy society for the majority of people. No matter how much money you earn, you can’t breathe in a place that’s full of fine dust.

Sometimes I’m glad that fine dust has become a prominent issue. Until now, South Korean society focused on how to raise people’s salaries and build more roads, but I think people’s paradigms of consciousness are now shifting so that they realize that breathing is really important too.

Fine dust costs people money as consumers: they buy several air purifiers for their homes, replacement filters for them, face masks. And they have to pay for related medical treatment. This is something that actually costs people money.

In the statement announcing your candidacy, you said today’s politicians don’t have the courage to change the structure. What did you mean by that?

Lawmakers in the previous parliament owned land amounting to an area bigger than Yeouido [8.4 sq km, or 2.5 times bigger than New York’s Central Park]. People like that are bound to represent the interests of people with their own homes and land. That’s why they don’t have the courage to change the existing political system from the roots upwards. People like that can’t make policies for tenants, because it would decrease the value of their assets.

You asked about changing the structure: I think it’s very important to allow people from diverse backgrounds to work in Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG). When it comes to the #MeToo movement, people in power are increasingly male, the higher up the hierarchy you go. The same goes for SMG. In the Green Party, we operate a 50:50 male-female system for all positions: I think we can introduce this system to the city government too.

Seoul mayoral election
Shin Ji-ye, the Green Party’s provisional candidate as Seoul mayor. (Ben Jackson/Korea Exposé)

More than half of Green Party members are female. 14 out of 15 Green Party candidates in the coming June elections are female. Is there a reason for that?

Everyone says it’s impressive how the Green Party has so many women and young people. I think our equal female-male role played a big part in that. In South Korean society until now, women have played a helping role. Holding the hands of their fathers or husbands during election campaigns, or going around with them greeting people, hanging up banners or keeping meeting minutes.

In the Green Party we really encourage women to become leaders. This gives them not only power but experience. Women who have this experience naturally gain courage, and start to feel they can enter politics.


Cover image: Seoul is South Korea’s largest city and the center of its political, cultural, economic activities. (Credit: Eugene Lee)

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