By Zavi Engles
On October 27th, voters of Seoul, South Korea made history by voting in an independent, left-leaning civic rights activist as mayor. Won-soon Park is also perhaps the first politician to be elected based on what has been referred to as an “Occupy Wall Street platform,” due to his activist (rather than political) background as well as his fervent support for the people and his lack of hesitation to call out the current national government’s conservative policies. The importance of his momentous rise from civic rights activist to independent, underdog candidate, to mayor of one of the largest, most economically important cities in the world cannot be understated.
The mayoral election of Seoul is typically seen as a “litmus test” for subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections. Many Korean presidents first rose up in the ranks by becoming the mayor of Seoul, including the current President Lee Myung-Bak. Further, Park is already in a position of considerable power and influence as Seoul is a city of 10 million people (larger than any city in the United States) that is also responsible for almost 50 percent of the country’s national GDP.
Park’s background is firmly rooted in social justice action, as opposed to politics. Park practiced as a human rights lawyer and he is also one of the founders of the watchdog organization People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD). Though he has been in office for less than a month, Park has been busy reversing many of his conservative predecessor’s policies, for example, expanding the free lunch program to all elementary school children in the city (the former mayor stepped down after a low-voter turnout on a referendum to reduce the city’s free lunch program to only the neediest children). He has also been using his new position as a platform to denounce the direction of the conservative regime, even claiming that he will override national laws to protect Seoul citizens from the new United States-South Korea free trade agreement.
This unexpected victory also signals the possibility of a paradigm shift in the Korean political scene. Recently, another unexpected possible political contender is making waves in public polls. During the mayoral elections, support for Park increased dramatically when he was endorsed by Cheol-soo Ahn, a businessman and current dean of the graduate school of science and technology and Seoul National University. Prior to the elections, a Korean political pundit named him as a possible mayoral candidate and surveys conducted thereafter showed that he was popular enough to win the presidential elections set to take place the December of next year. However, Ahn did not end up running and instead endorsed Park, while also urging South Korean voters to oust the current political order. Critics are now speculating the Ahn may run for president, though he has not confirmed this.
Though it is still too early to tell, Park’s victory may signal that the political tides are turning in South Korea. If this is the case, South Korea’s relations with the United States may change drastically, as many voters and progressive politicians, including Park, are urging the current government to move away from policies such as the new US-South Korea free trade deal. Further, both Park and Ahn have called for a change in the hard-line approach that the current President has towards North Korea. Whether next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections usher in a new era of progressive, liberal policy-making in South Korea is yet to be seen. However, if current trends continue, the United States and others may be contending with a very different administration in the near future.