No city in the world compares to New York, but South Korea’s capital city of almost 10 million people can at least make a strong case. A former human rights activist, Park Won-soon was elected mayor in 2011 and is considered a leading candidate for the country’s presidency in 2017. Park discussed deepening Seoul’s ties to New York, transportation funding fights and his favorite Seoul puns.

City & State: You’re in Manhattan to promote the relationship between Seoul and New York – it seems to be a strong relationship now, but how could it be improved?

Park Won-soon: Seoul is the capital city, not only in administration and politics, but also in business. So even though the capital of politics is (elsewhere) in the U.S., New York is the capital city in business in the whole world. So there are so many things to get, benefits, in exchanging with New York City. At the same time, Seoul is also one of the global cities in Asia, and also there are around 500,000 Korean-Americans living in the greater New York area, so they can be a bridge in exchanging between New York and Seoul. Also, New York is the home of culture and arts, including fashion. Seoul is also becoming a global city and a hub for arts and the so-called Korean Wave, so exchanging with each other will be giving some benefits with each other.

C&S: Mayors of New York City often try to have an influence on national policy – Michael Bloomberg on health and firearms, for example, and Bill de Blasio on minimum wage and immigrant rights. Seoul has an even larger influence over Korea than New York does over the United States. What’s your take? Do you only have a responsibility for Seoul residents, or for the country and the world?

PW: Of course, yes. The best components of Seoul Metropolitan Government are usually giving a great impact on other cities. So the best components usually expand to other cities, at last leading to change the national policies. So there are many cases.

But sometimes we have some conflict, when the leader is in different political parties. Now we are having some difficulty because the president of Korea is in the ruling party, I’m in the opposition party. I don’t know in the U.S. case, but still it’s important to harmonize the different opinion between these and broker a government.

C&S: Here in New York, there are constant battles over funding for public transportation, with the mayor and governor often disagreeing about how to spend a limited budget. South Korea has beautiful public transit. How does transit funding work there? What are the challenges?

PW: In the process of building the subway, the central government has the burden of a certain ratio of cost. But they do not want to take the burden to support the maintenance costs. And also, there is a policy by central government to provide free rides to the elderly. It’s decided by the central government, as policy of them, but the cost of the policy, they do not assume. So in that case we are always asking them to take the responsibility, but they do not assume. 

C&S: There are constant political battles in New York over how to regulate companies like Uber and Airbnb. You have declared Seoul to be a sharing city. What is your strategy of working with those companies and fostering the sharing economy?

PW: Actually, Airbnb and Uber have good performance now in Seoul, but in the beginning, in the case of Uber there were some problems, because we have the permit system, license system for taxi drivers. But in the case of Uber, without the right permit, they can employ the drivers for Uber company. It’s a violation of existing law, so we do not allow them to market or to operate in Seoul. But we arrived at the same conclusion. Uber can recruit and employ the drivers among the drivers who have already got the permit by Seoul Metropolitan Government. We made an agreement and now Uber Black is operating in Seoul Metropolitan Government. So I think some problems at first, but good agreement addressed.

C&S: Before you became Mayor, you led a truth and reconciliation commission in Korea. Does that concept work in every situation? Do you think a truth and reconciliation commission on slavery and civil rights would work in the United States?

PW: Slavery? In Korea we have no slavery issues. But we have some sexual slave victims by the Japanese Imperialist Army. We are providing some support for the victims and we are supporting the landmark fund for memorializing the sufferings. [There were] many difficult, tragic instances in the era of dictatorship. Last year it was the commemoration year of our independence. 70th! On that occasion we had the policy to mark the important place where the tragic instances had taken place. 

C&S: Paris, Istanbul and others have been hit by recent terrorist attacks. How is Seoul is dealing with the terrorism concerns that all big cities have?

PW: I can safely say that Seoul is relatively free from terrorists. But still we are facing the hostile North Korean government. So we cannot foretell when and where the terror from North Korea will take place. So we are always ready to escape or to be ready for the potential terrorism.

C&S: The most famous Korean in New York is Ban Ki Moon. You are both possible presidential candidates next year. Are you hoping to grow your international reputation?

PW: Of course yes! But I cannot be competing in terms of global leadership. But still I was an activist on a grassroots basis. I had extensive exchanges with many other leaders in grassroots and civil society. For example I am one of the leaders in the field of social innovation so I have a good network with many other colleagues internationally. And I also was the executive director of The Beautiful Foundation which was a community foundation and I have extensive relations with leaders in the fundraising community. So in this sense it’s a different sector. Mr. Ban Ki Moon is leading the United Nations and public diplomacy, but I’m the leader in civil society and grassroots organization.

C&S: Manhattan has a bustling Koreatown and there is a growing population in Flushing. Have you visited on your trips to New York? Do you have any recommendations?

PW: [laughs] I have been to New York many, many times, even before becoming mayor, so whenever I’m coming to New York, especially visiting the Flushing area, there are so many Karaoke stores. So you can enjoy singing songs there. Not only Korean songs, but also many pop songs and other American songs.

Many Korean foods, you know, before the restaurants were only for Koreans. Now, many Americans and Asians enjoy Korean food. I can say that Korean food has very special characteristics. It’s made through the process of fermentation so it’s very good for health, including kimchi. If you taste it on an everyday basis, you can live to 100 years old.

C&S: What’s your favorite Seoul pun? Do you got soul? Are you a soldier? Do you like soul food?

PW: Soul mate! We tried new brand[ing]. There were three potential candidates for the Seoul brand. Originally I liked “Seoul Mate.” Friends of Seoul. It was very normal. But we asked the citizens, not only the citizens living in Seoul but also the citizens living abroad. So hundreds of thousands of citizens living in Seoul and abroad voted together and they chose “I Seoul U.” They said, the designers and experts, that it’s very strange in grammar, but now it was chosen for [the Red Dot Design Award]. So through that, I got the lesson that the citizen is more important than me.