Cho Soon Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Governing a Global City; Conversation with Cho Soon, Mayor of Seoul; 4/25/96 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by L. Carper

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"Mr. Mayor"

Now your portfolio includes a new job: the first democratically elected mayor of the city of Seoul. How is this job different from the other ways that you've served your country?

When I served as economic planning minister and the governor of Bank of Korea, I made use of my knowledge of economics, which I learned at Berkeley. Economics does contribute to performing my duties as mayor, but I have to concern myself with all kinds of problems. Traffic conditions, the environment, housing, culture, internationalization, and so on and so forth, so that this breadth of my duty is far greater than when I was economic planning minister and the governor of Bank of Korea.

Give us a sense of some of the factors at work here. What is the size of your city and how much has it grown in recent years?

When the country was liberated from Japan in 1945, the city of Seoul, which is the capital city of South Korea, had less than one million population. Nowadays the population has reached 11 million people and the city is surrounded by 16 different satellite cities, so that the daytime population of the city of Seoul would be around 14 to 15 million people. Seoul has become one of the largest cities in the world.

And that daytime traffic makes Seoul's population about a third of the whole population of your country.


Are the institutions that go with your position as mayor adequate for meeting all of the different challenges that you have to deal with?

No. Even though the civil servants that I work with are very able and very dedicated, the total size of the Seoul municipal government is too small. The knowledge and technical capability on the part of the civil servants is also very inadequate. And to make the matter worse, the system of local government, so far anyway, has not been supported by a kind of institutional framework which upon which it ought to develop. Local autonomy has to be founded on a much firmer institutional basis.

Give us an example of a particular problem and explain to us how the institutional support is lacking.

These are simple examples: The mayor has to have the authority on how many people he should employ to perform his duty. But I as mayor of the city of Seoul do not have that authority. The mayor has to have the authority to increase his revenue by adding more taxes, for instance, to perform the kind of duty that he is called upon to perform, but I am not authorized to do that either. A mayor has to change regulations, but that freedom is also extremely limited, so that the mayor's freedom of action, elbow room, is too small and limited.

Up until this time, has your city government been in essence a creation of the national government, the president, and the national legislature?


So you are in a transition to a more democratic form of local government.

I assume and I hope that the national government and the newly elected national assembly will ponder this matter and will make necessary rearrangements of the institution of local self-government.

Seoul is not just a national capital but also a major center for commerce and business in Korea.

Cho Soon Oh yes, Seoul is not only the capital of Korea but it is the center of just about everything. It is the center of culture, it is the center of education, the center of business, the center of whatever may come across to our mind, so in a sense Seoul is just like Paris, or even more than Paris, it is the center of everything for the country.

A combination of Washington DC and New York City.

Yes, a combination of Washington and New York.

With this changing context, with the first elected mayor of the city, what are the physical problems in your city that you have to grapple with?

Well I have to grapple with the inadequate standard of safety for the social infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels, roads, the subways and so on; and also I have to grapple with traffic conditions and environmental protection and housing and restoring balance in the lives of the citizens and so on and so forth.

And probably a lot of environmental problems.

Oh yes, very much. Air pollution and so on.

So what has become your operating philosophy? What principles and philosophy of governance do you work under with institutional scarcity but with an array of unmanageable problems?

Well, Seoul, for the last half of century, has had 29 mayors. The mayors were appointed by the president and their tenure of their office was on average less then two years. They did not give enough attention to the welfare of the citizens, and their skills in city administration were rather short. So considering all these things, I had been telling myself that first of all I have to pursue principles rather than go about doing things through administrative expediencies. I have to establish honest government and I have to maintain an open system of administration and I have to take as much of a long-term view as possible. I have to introduce commercial and business principles and make the city administration effective and efficient, and by doing all these things I have to gain credibility on the part of the citizens. So these are the general ways in which I try to pursue my duties.

In addition to the particular problems that arise from the history of your city, aren't there enormous challenges that come from being a global city? For example, I understand that you are opening a trade office in Los Angeles on your visit here, so in a way a mayor of a great city has to be a kind of ambassador with a special portfolio. Is that correct?

Yes, yes. Seoul has many many small and medium-sized business forums, and the economic structure of Korea is such that small and medium firms are invariably in a disadvantaged position, so I would like to give them the necessary information about overseas marketing, about technology, and about the demands of the international market and so on. Since the city of Seoul and the United States have a very strong economic relationship, I established what is called the Seoul Information Center in the city of Los Angeles, in order to give the necessary information on Seoul to the American people and also to give the necessary information on the United States [to Korean business], and thereby help small and medium firms help themselves.

So for a great city, city-to-city international relations become very important.

Yes, the process of globalization is coupled with the process of localization.

We are beginning to think here in this country about the domestic politics of foreign policy, where groups here are concerned about affairs in other countries and lobby on international issues. Is this also true in your country?

Oh yes, very much. NGOs -- nongovernmental organizations -- are very much concerned about international development in Korea, for instance. They tend to have stronger voices on international relations, international business matters, and so on.

Do you think that this is a trend that going to stay?


Looking at your career, moving from a national ministry to a city, it's a new kind of link between great cities and world affairs.

That's right.

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