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[Feature] Gwanghwamun Square stands in the way of Seoul Mayor’s path to Blue House

Back in 2017, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon gave up on entering the presidential race, saying he could not “win the hearts of the people.”

Having won his third consecutive mayoral term in an overwhelming victory in June 2018, becoming the city’s longest-serving mayor, Park is now considered one of the strongest candidates for the 2022 presidential election.

The 63-year-old former human rights lawyer and civic activist has not given a direct answer about his presidential ambitions; neither has he shied away from showing his intention to run for the country’s highest office.

“When I was involved in civic movements, I did not have money, personnel and authority even when I had good ideas,” he said during a dinner meeting with reporters, marking the first anniversary of his third term as Seoul mayor.

Explaining that he now has a 35 trillion won ($29 billion) budget and talented staff working for the city, he said, “I still desire bigger authority, but it is great that I still have this much.”

Dodging a question on who he considered his biggest rival in the presidential race, Park said, “if I had to answer, I would say it is myself.”

Overall, Seoul residents appear to be satisfied with Park’s leadership. 

A July survey by Realmeter, a local pollster, of 170,000 people on the level of satisfaction with 17 municipal leaders, including governors and mayors of Seoul, Sejong and six metropolitan cities, showed Park ranking third with 53.7 percent of votes. Seoul residents expressed the greatest levels of satisfaction with their lives, with 60.1 percent saying they were satisfied.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon gives a lecture on “a story on new politics” at a youth training center for YMCA Jeongeup in Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province, Saturday. (Yonhap)
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon gives a lecture on “a story on new politics” at a youth training center for YMCA Jeongeup in Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province, Saturday. (Yonhap)
Difficulties facing potential rivals from the liberal bloc could also boost his chances in the presidential race. Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung and South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo are being tried for suspected abuse of power and online opinion-rigging, respectively.

Still, Park’s popularity has remained stagnant at single-digit percentages this year.

Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon remains the liberal bloc’s frontrunner, a popularity poll for the country’s prospective presidential candidates showed.
According to Realmeter’s survey of 2,511 adults nationwide from July 29 to Aug. 2, the prime minister was the favorite, garnering 25 percent of the respondents for two consecutive months, followed by the Gyeonggi governor at 7.8 percent. The popularity rate for Park stood at 4.9 percent.

Controversial projects

Taking the helm of Seoul, the country’s capital with a population of some 10 million, is considered a springboard to the presidency.

Former President Lee Myung-bak, for example, cruised to victory in the 2007 presidential election buoyed by two successful projects -- the restoration of Cheonggye Stream and the overhaul of Seoul’s bus transportation system -- during his mayorship from 2002 to 2006.

Park has brought about some positive changes to Seoul, with the megapolis becoming more participatory, environmentally conscious, pedestrian-friendly and welfare-friendly.

Some of his policy achievements include free school lunches, a public bike-rental system, expansion of welfare for the young and for newlyweds and refurbishing old districts and city landmarks.

Among the latest projects is a “skygarden” named Seoullo 7017 that opened in May 2017. A 45-year-old motorway flyover was remodeled into an elevated pedestrian overpass and public park, although it is criticized for creating more traffic congestion in the area.

Critics, however, say Park still does not have a signature project that could make his presence felt among the public.

His plan to restructure Gwanghwamun Square is widely seen as part of his last-ditch efforts to do something more dramatic to propel himself to the presidential office.

Under the plan, which would cost about 104 billion won, the Seoul Metropolitan Government hopes to “expand Gwanghwamun Square 3.7-fold” by May 2021 to make it the capital’s cultural, historical and transport hub.

But the plan, which would expand the square westward toward the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts and reduce the current 10-lane boulevard to six lanes, faces strong resistance, leading the central government to put the brakes on it.

The Ministry of the Interior and Safety sent an official notice to the city government July 30 demanding that the plan to expand and renovate Gwanghwamun Square be put on hold, citing negative public sentiment.

Both former Interior Minister Kim Boo-kyum and current Interior Minister Chin Young publicly objected to the project.
Blueprint of new Gwanghwamun Square(Seoul Metropolitan Government)
Blueprint of new Gwanghwamun Square(Seoul Metropolitan Government)

The municipality will hold a workshop Tuesday at City Hall to gather opinions on the restructuring plan for the square from a 170-member citizens’ committee.

“It can be seen as a project to boost his profile as a presidential candidate because he does not have signature projects he can advertise,” said Shin Yul, a professor at Myongji University.

“(For the Gwanghwamun project to be his signature achievement), such a project is divisive because those seeking to have bigger space for demonstrations would love the project but ordinary people would be divided on it,” he said.

Among other controversial projects is his plan to build a multistory housing complex above a 500-meter section of the Bukbu Expressway in northeastern Seoul, with critics raising questions about its feasibility.

His push to expand the Zero Pay system -- the city-sponsored mobile transaction platform aimed at lowering credit card payment-processing costs for small vendors -- also drew scrutiny for intervening in the mobile payment sector, where private players are already competing.

Despite the seemingly ambitious projects he is proposing, critics say the former civic activist’s major obstacle would be his lack of political standing within his own party -- the ruling Democratic Party of Korea -- as he is not considered part of the mainstream and lacks close ties to President Moon Jae-in.