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Seoul ‘upholds the flag of hope’ as it leads the charge towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Interview - June 3, 2016

Seoul’s Mayor, Park Won-Soon, has won national and international plaudits for his radical approach to citizen engagement and economic development. Here, he expands on his vision for the “hot and trendy” South Korean capital as a global leader in technology and creativity that is underpinned by the “two wings” of innovation and collaborative governance. 



South Korea’s economic progress over the past six decades is known as the “Miracle on the Han River”, and now the national government is trying to conjure up a second miracle based on technological innovation and the so-called “creative economy”. How effective has the creative economy policy been on a national level, and how are you managing this transition towards a creative economy here in the capital city?

As you mentioned, Korea achieved the “Miracle of the Han River”, but we were just catching up with the first, second and third industrial revolutions that were led by the USA and Europe. Korea and Seoul want to lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What we’re going to do is focus our advances on ICT, biomedicine and R&D. We also want to push forward on big data, IoT and automatization so we can really take the lead in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Seoul is a very knowledge-based society; it’s a very much brain city with more than 60 universities located here, so we have the human resources to match our ambition.

For example, we are ranked number one in the world in semiconductors, batteries for electric cars, ICT and electronics. You can walk around the city and notice that we have world-class infrastructure in these areas, and we are number one in terms of e-government as well. What Seoul wants to do is strengthen and solidify our leadership in these areas and also minimize the possible side effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the working population.


Seoul is the birthplace of K-pop and the Korean Wave. In this period when traditional exports are in decline, we observe that Korea’s cultural and entertainment exports are booming, together with related industries such as cosmetics. How important are the culture and entertainment industries to the future economy of Seoul, not only in terms of direct revenue and job creation, but also in terms of your global image and soft power influence?

In the past, Korea was led very much by the manufacturing industry but that sector is unfortunately diminishing, and now ‘Hallyu’—or the ‘Korean Wave’—is offering new economic opportunities. This encompasses a variety of cultural industries such as K-pop, K-drama, K-food, and K-animation. These soft power industries are spreading the Korean Wave beyond Asia to Europe and even to South America. Seoul is the cradle of the Korean Wave. In the past, we allowed it to grow naturally but now we are going to support it actively. We are also supporting e-sports, and we have created an e-sports stadium in a district of Seoul as well.

In the 18th century, at the very end of the Joseon Dynasty, many foreign missionaries would come to Korea and they would refer to it as the “Land of the Morning Calm”, but nowadays foreigners come and experience a very different vibe. It’s a very hot and trendy city. I met with the executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, and he said that he didn’t realize what a hot and trendy city it is until he visited. Google have since set up a Google campus for startups in Seoul, the third such campus in the world.

This is no longer the Land of the Morning Calm; Seoul is a city that never sleeps. There is always something happening 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


When we talk about innovation we want to touch on innovation in all aspects of life, including governance. You have been referred to as the “Listening Mayor” and you have pioneered a new era of citizen engagement here in Seoul, as evidenced by the giant ear outside City Hall. Indeed, your campaign slogan was “Citizens are the Mayor”. Why did you feel it was necessary to enter an era of deep and sustained engagement with citizens, and what is your response to critics who say this commitment to citizen engagement slows down the decision making process?

Confucius said that every day we need to change and innovate for the better. These days we are really seeing changes and innovations that are unprecedented in the history of mankind. We are seeing innovations in the economy and business, and even in our daily lives and lifestyles, and Korean people are really creating a hot and trendy culture and civilization.

In the past we were very much suppressed in our freedom and creative activities due to the dictatorship, but nowadays we are free and bursting with creative ideas. What the government needs to do is encourage and support this creativity for society to grow and change for the better. There is no magic key to this. We need to, as a government, create an environment that unleashes the creative potential of the people.


Although Korea is recognized as having one of the best education systems in the world, one of the major issues facing the country nationally is the high youth unemployment rate, which means you have a highly educated young population that feels they do not have a stake in the future of the country. How effective have your efforts been to tackle this problem and create a more hopeful future for young people here in Seoul?

I believe that Korea and Seoul are very much in transition. In the past we have focused on manufacturing; nowadays it’s R&D. In the past we were focused on hardware development and GDP. Today, it’s software and GNH, the gross national happiness index. We are, as I mentioned earlier, watching our manufacturing sector diminish due to low labor costs in China, and so we are seeing the emergence of R&D and the convergence of biomedicine and tourism and cultural industries as the main new growth engines in Seoul.

Our economy has for many years been underpinned by a few major conglomerates, but nowadays we are seeing the emergence of venture companies based on creation and innovation. I think that the Seoul government’s policies and initiatives differ somewhat from that of the central government. We believe that if we focus on areas where Seoul has strengths, job creation will naturally follow. In other words, in the past it was all about increasing the size of the pie so that pieces could be distributed to everyone, but we now know this approach is no longer effective.

We are focusing on people and on increasing the happiness levels of our citizens. After my inauguration, I increased the budget allocation for welfare by 4 trillion Korean won (approx. $3.35 billion). I believe that welfare is an investment in the future wellbeing of the people. With this additionally allocated 4 trillion won, I believe that we can ensure happy lives for our citizens, especially the most vulnerable in our society. This is connected to the creation of jobs. In fact, our welfare policy created 240,000 jobs.

Last year we also welcomed 12 million tourists to Seoul. We hope that we can reach 20 million tourists by 2018, which will lead to 400,000 new jobs.

Our human resources are very strong. South Korea is one of the biggest contributors of foreign students to the United States. I actually grew up in the rural countryside and my parents were educated only in elementary school, and yet they encouraged me and sacrificed a lot so that I could have a great education at Seoul National University (SNU), LSE and Harvard. My older brother is also highly educated and he’s now a professor at a university in Seoul. One person said that we have more than 5,000 people in Seoul with doctorate degrees from SNU. I believe that we are very rich and talented individuals.

In the past, we had an economic model that focused on catching up with advanced countries, but now we are pursuing a creative economy model that focuses on leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the convergence of culture and arts. I think that the brainpower of Seoul can really come to the fore in this era.


Mayor, you touched on the deep links that this country has with the United States. Last year was a record year for FDI in Seoul, largely on the back of a huge increase in Chinese investment. Nevertheless, the USA remains the second largest source of FDI inflows and is a market leader in many of fields that you have identified as future growth engines of Seoul’s economy. What is your assessment of the potential for increased American investment in Seoul?

I think Seoul boasts many strengths. First is its geo-political location. It is located between China and Japan, which are two of the biggest economies in the world. Also there are 30 cities within a three-hour flight from Seoul that have a population of more than 5 million people.

The second strength is the intelligent and highly educated people here. There are, as I mentioned earlier, more than 60 universities located in Seoul. In America, we see one university located in one city but I don’t think there’s any other city like Seoul that has more than 60 universities located within it.

The third strength is that we have the unique experience of growing the economy from practically nothing and of managing the systems for it.

Many foreigners are not very familiar with Korea but once they reside here, perhaps as an employee at an embassy or perhaps as an employee at an office of one of the foreign companies, they discover Seoul and they realize just how great it is to send their kids to school here. The high level of education and safety, and the efficiency of public transport, are major benefits. In fact, CNN said that the public transportation system of Seoul was one of the 10 miracles of the world. Also, Seoul has a very well connected and fast internet system. Seoul really is a great place for global people to reside in.

If I may add, Seoul is a really great test bed city. Seoul citizens wait in long lines to purchase the latest models of smartphones and new technologies, whilst e-commerce and online shopping are also very popular in Korea.

A US magazine, Business Traveler, said that Seoul was the number one city in terms of holding business meetings. I think it was AP or another source that said that Seoul is the number one city for wealthy people to spend time and money.

Seoul has so many different elements. We have the history of the ancient kingdoms, we have the history of the Middle Ages and the Joseon Dynasty, and today we see the innovative and modern companies and technologies of Samsung, Hyundai and LG. I think that people come here and rediscover these different elements and then they want to come back again and again.


You said earlier that Eric Schmidt came here and had no idea that Seoul was such a modern, creative city. Chinese people may be very familiar with Seoul but Americans less so. We know you have a new brand image launched last year, I Seoul You. What is the overall image of Seoul that you want to project to an American audience?

I don’t think that we can create an image overnight. The visitor needs to come and they should tell their family and friends what is best about Seoul. In addition to that, we need to take measures for international promotion and marketing. Unfortunately, in the past we haven’t made a lot of investments in international promotion and marketing. That’s why today’s interview is so important and we need to invite more columnists to Seoul to look around the city.

We are actually in the process of making a database for people and companies that are interested in Seoul or who want to grow their businesses here. We will pursue customized marketing according to this database. I think that if we accumulate these experiences we will be able to reap the benefits soon.

Recently we had a world fashion leader, Miss Suzy Menkes, visit Seoul and she completely fell in love with the city. She said that the fashion of Seoul was very fun and interesting and so she posts images and videos on her Instagram account very often about Seoul and its fashion industry. Also, this year we hosted Suzy Menkes’s conference, the Conde Nast Luxury Conference, in Seoul as well. What we learnt from this experience is that one person can have an enormous effect by simply visiting our city and falling in love with it. If we can have international movies shot in Seoul that would also have a very positive promotional effect. We invited ‘The Avengers’ to shoot a scene in Seoul, which was very popular, and I also tried to contact the famous director Woody Allen about producing something here, but we have not received a response from him so far.


We feel like we’re with a visionary leader in many respects. You talk a lot about hope and you talk a lot about happiness—these are very simple but essential human emotions that are often missing from political discourse. Can you sum up the principles that guide you in your leadership?

When youths ask me to write a message for them, I always write, “Hope never loses.” In other words, hope always prevails. In despair, don’t lose hope. South Korea, and the Korean peninsula as a whole, has experienced a very tragic contemporary history. We were occupied by Japan, we were colonized by Japan, we went through the Korean War, which caused 1 million deaths in three years, and we were divided into two countries when we had been unified for more than 1,000 years. Then, we also went through dictatorship and poverty for a very long time, so the emotions from those tragedies are still raw even to this day. But we have overcome our difficulties to achieve economic growth and to democratize our society.

I believe that we have the experience, the wisdom and the confidence to overcome the many challenges that we face. Even in despair we should uphold the flag of hope. I repeat, as we go forward, we need to continue to uphold the flag of hope. Our ultimate goal is for the people to live free, happy and fulfilling lives. We must not lose sight of this ultimate goal.

In the past it was very unfortunate because sometimes we did lose sight of the ultimate goal and we focused more on growth itself. It was kind of like pointing our hands towards the moon but only looking at the tips of our fingers. I think this change in direction is a positive change for Seoul and for all of humanity.

In the process of reaching our goals, I always say that we need to have two wings. One wing is innovation and the second wing is collaborative governance. We are living in an era that needs much innovation, so we need to reform our society continuously, and this doesn’t require the efforts of one person or one city or one government alone—we need cooperation and collaboration from everyone, including citizens, experts, and the global community.

Seoul is making a database of all our experiences so that we can share the Seoul solution model with cities in third world countries. We may have experienced a hurtful and tragic history, but we want to help other cities in developing countries to lead happy and prosperous lives together—that is our vision.