Seoul Mayor Says Cooperating With North to Produce Leverage

South Korea should embrace a policy of cooperation and economic assistance with totalitarian North Korea to boost its leverage over the regime of Kim Jong Un, Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon said.

Park, who manages a city of 10.2 million people generating more than 20 percent of the output of Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, said the South should develop more projects like the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. The jointly run manufacturing park in the North, which was shuttered in April, had 53,000 workers and was a source of cheap labor for companies such as Seoul-based clothing firm Shinwon Corp. while providing hard currency to the Kim regime.

“If we have more Gaeseong complexes, we can easily move and change North Korea,” Park said in an interview yesterday in his office decorated with a wall covered with Post-it messages from constituents and skewed bookshelves as part of an Alice in Wonderland theme designed to make the space more inviting. “It’s an enormous source of income, especially the dollars. The more leverage we have, the more weapons or means we have to change and move North Korea.”

Nuclear Test

Gaeseong turned from a symbol of cooperation to one of deteriorating relations when Pyongyang pulled out its workers in April amid heightened tensions over the North’s testing of a nuclear device and tighter United Nations sanctions against the Kim regime. The North and South agreed this month to open Gaeseong, an accord that led to talks on restarting reunions of families separated by the Korean War, the latest sign of a thaw between the two countries that remain divided 60 years after the conflict.

Park, 57, said he hopes easing tensions will allow him to tap the city’s North-South cooperation fund to revive joint soccer matches, hold orchestra exchanges and provide humanitarian aid to the North, which has suffered from famine and food shortages. The fund is currently worth $17 million.

“We’ve had no opportunity to provide such humanitarian support during the last government,” Park said, referring to the administration of former President Lee Myung Bak. With tensions easing “there may be opportunities to exchange such sports and art events and also the humanitarian support.”

Exploiting Discord

Mayor Park would need to make sure any aid plan would be backed by the central government, said Lee Hochul, a political science professor at Incheon National University.

“Park would have to stay in step with the central government on providing humanitarian aid to North Korea because the effectiveness of that aid would be undermined otherwise,'' Lee said. ``There is also always a chance North Korea could exploit any discord among South Korean officials so it can get more concessions.”

The North’s unwillingness to scrap its nuclear weapons program limits how far South Korean President Park Geun Hye will go in engaging Pyongyang, said Koh Yu Hwan, Seoul-based professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University.

“Park Won Soon says humanitarian, social and cultural exchanges should be maintained or expanded regardless of politics while President Park’s trust-building process can move at full speed only when there is progress on the North Korean nuclear issue,” he said.

Urban Gardener

Park governs Seoul from a desk covered with four foot-high stacks of paper. In one corner of his office the mayor does his own urban gardening in a vegetable patch where he cares for lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant and red pepper.

Prior to entering politics in 2011 with his independent bid for the Seoul mayorship, Park was already a national figure, having built a reputation as a civil-rights lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner. As a college student he provoked the ire of President Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung Hee, for his role in organizing anti-government protests in 1975. The unrest prompted a crackdown in which the undergraduate was jailed for about four months and expelled from Seoul National University.

The mayor said the power of South Korean family run conglomerates remains too strong. The so-called chaebols, including Samsung Group, remains the backbone of the South Korean economy. Since taking office, Park has sought to defend small businesses, enforcing a law that ordered large box stores to close at least one day every two weeks. Costco Wholesale Corp., after resisting the edict, is abiding by the closing rules.

Small Businesses

“The protection of traditional, small-size businesses is very much needed, so we’ll continue,” Park said. “I’m now really trying my best to support the small businesses or traditional markets to be more creative in modernizing their space, their management, their kindness to customers.”

The mayor has also challenged President Park. The central government and the cities are meant to split the costs of one of the president’s signature policies -- providing as much as 394,000 won ($353) a month to parents with children under the age of 5. Mayor Park says the city doesn’t have the money to cover the payments.

In an effort to press the president, the city has put up posters and TV screens carrying pleas to the central government to increase its portion of the funding. The campaign prompted the ruling party to file a complaint to the country’s election commission against the mayor.

Childcare Payments

“The parliament and the central government have decided to provide free allowances to children,” the mayor said. “But the local government had assumed many parts of the spending.”

Park, who faces an election in June, earned a history degree at Dankook University and later passed the bar exam. He became a prosecutor for the southeastern city of Daegu, only to quit within a year because he “didn’t like throwing people in jail,” he said in a 2011 book he co-authored.

The Seoul mayorship has previously been a springboard for national politics. Lee Myung Bak held the post before being elected president in 2007. Asked about his future ambitions Park would only say, “I have aspirations to be a good mayor.”

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