In one sense, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has got it easy. The international boom of South Korean “K-culture” exports like pop groups BTS and Blackpink, and even dystopian hits like Squid Game and Parasite, have done more to market his beguiling city of 10 million than any Madison Avenue publicity campaign could.
But that doesn’t mean Oh is sitting back. The 62-year-old former lawyer and lawmaker says he is determined to transform Seoul into a top tourist destination as well as an Asian hub for international firms. To that end, he recently returned from a goodwill tour of North America, where he threw the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game, before attending New York City Climate Week, including a meeting of the C40 Climate Leadership Group—a global network of progressive city leaders—on the sidelines of the U.N. Climate Ambition Summit.
Oh made his name as a lawyer by establishing the “right to sunlight” for the first time in South Korean history, meaning that developers and city planners were forced to leave adequate room between buildings. As Mayor, he has championed green policies such as encouraging residents to drink tap rather than bottled water, boosting recycling targets, and reducing wastage.
Oh spoke to TIME in Seoul City Hall, where he discussed bonding with New York Mayor Eric Adams over a whisky, why South Korea needs nuclear weapons, and a potential run for the nation’s top job.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You've just returned from the U.S. How was that trip?
The visit was very fruitful. First and foremost, we had the C40 Steering Committee meeting, where I met with the Mayor of London and other mayors of major cities around the world to discuss climate action. I also met with the Mayor of New York, Eric Adams, and we signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] on friendly cooperation.
I had a drink with Mayor Adams in the evening and we really came together in solidarity and unity, because he is referred to as the “Republican Democrat” mayor, and I am a member of a conservative party but also referred to as maybe the “Democratic” politician within it. And we are both very committed to taking care of vulnerable groups in our society. When we said goodbye, we said that we will become brothers and became very close.
Seoul is the center of the K-culture phenomenon and plans to attract 30 million foreign tourists to the city by 2027. What soft power benefits does the K-culture buzz bring?
Our exact strategy is “3377,” which means we want to attract 30 million inbound tourists to Seoul annually, and for each to spend 3 million Korean won [$2,300]. And we want them to stay in Seoul for seven days, with a revisit rate to be 70%—so that's 3377. Of course, the tourism industry has very favorable effects in terms of job creation and economic development. But even more importantly, Seoul has become the subject of interest and curiosity of people around the world. We hope that this K-culture popularity can lead more people to come to Seoul and raise the overall national brand of South Korea.
Seoul was listed in the top 10 global financial cities in March. How are you striving to make it a business-friendly place?
To make a city business-friendly people talk about lowering the tax rate or revitalizing the startup ecosystem. But that's obvious. To become a truly business-friendly city we need to make a city that is very attractive, where people want to live, make money, and enjoy themselves. So I focus on three elements: technology, talent, and tolerance. Seoul is already well known to be a smart city and has 54 universities, so we have abundant talent. The third element, tolerance, is about having the mindset of being open and welcoming to foreigners.
October marked the one-year anniversary of the Itaewon disaster, when 159 people died in a crush while celebrating Halloween. What steps have you taken to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again?
First and foremost is how we handle events or occasions where there is no host or organizer. Regarding hardware, we installed more CCTVs along the main roads and alleyways to detect the crowd before an accident happens. Already, Seoul has 150,000 CCTV throughout the city and so we are quite a safe city; women can walk at 10 p.m. or midnight and feel safe from crime. We will incorporate AI in these so-called “people counting CCTVs and so they automatically detect the number of people in crowds and they send this information to the control tower. So I firmly believe that such an accident will not occur again.
Still, to this day no one has resigned or been held responsible for the tragedy. Do you think that's good enough?
The investigation is ongoing in a very fair manner and criminal cases are being pursued. Criminal accountability is being placed on the head of the police agency and the head of the fire department in that region.
Some relatives of Itaewon victims told me that they're being fined for erecting a small shrine outside City Hall. Why is it appropriate to fine grieving families for a small, non-obstructive shrine on public land?
If they had consulted with the Seoul Metropolitan government before installing the shrine, it would not have been a problem. But according to Korean law it’s illegal—that’s why we fined them. It is indeed disappointing, but there is an inevitable aspect to the situation. The Seoul city government has been consistently making sincere efforts to help and stand by the bereaved families throughout the year. We have assigned designated public officers to support them and we have maintained communication.
You recently unveiled a “Going together with a socially neglected” policy which aims to uplift the city’s less privileged and reduce inequality. What is your vision behind this and what does it mean in practical terms?
In many advanced countries, the more national wealth accumulated the wider the gap between the rich and the poor. Korea is no exception. But we can’t let the rich get even richer; everyone must get prosperous together. So it's the government’s responsibility to take care of vulnerable groups in society.
A good example is “Seoul Learn,” which is an online educational platform. In Korea, unlike other countries, to get into a good university students have to enroll in private academic institutions. But these private academic institutions are very expensive. Seoul Learn provides students from families in the bottom 25% income bracket these popular and expensive educational content for free. We provide them with expensive educational materials and textbooks and match them with university students as mentors. Their academic levels have risen quite significantly.
Last year, most participants of Seoul Learn entered good universities and so this is a symbolic example of our going together with the socially neglected. We want to sever the bad cycle of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
People with physical disabilities are also among the socially neglected. Recently, you were quite critical of the Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD) advocacy group that protested by blocking commuter routes. Why?
Actually, I don't believe it was a harsh response. We were quite tolerant because they deliberately and intentionally blocked subways more than 90 times over the past year and a half. Subways rely on the exact time that they're supposed to run. At first, SADD held protests calling for mobility rights of people with disabilities. The city government listened to their demands and rolled out mobility improvement projects in response. However, SADD continued their protests, now urging for an increase in the central government budget for disabled people, which is not part of the city government’s jurisdiction.
In the meantime, our innocent citizens who commute for their livelihoods have suffered. These disruptions in public transportation have resulted in not only personal suffering but also public losses. In the best interest of our citizens, the city government had to make a difficult yet firm decision to no longer tolerate disruptions caused by their protests. That is why we have taken legal actions and we had to prohibit their subway protests.
You're working towards the Zero Waste Seoul and striving to increase the plastic recycling rate to 80% by 2026. What's the biggest barrier you face to achieving this goal?
It's a very important goal but very difficult because we see a rapid increase in single-person and two-person households, which together account for more than 60% of the entire population of Seoul. Young people leave their parents’ house and resort to delivery food in plastic containers, so it's very challenging.
You've been quite vocal supporting South Korea developing its own nuclear deterrent. Why is that? Presumably you believe that the current situation under the U.S. nuclear umbrella is insufficient.
We trust in the U.S. and we trust in the Biden Administration. However, the U.S. president is replaced every four years. We want to believe in the promise that the U.S. has given us and have faith in the alliances between our countries. But depending on who is president of the U.S., this can change. Every country needs to have the means to defend itself. And since North Korea has their own nukes; nukes can deter nukes.
When you say that things “can change,” it feels like you are referring to another potential term by former President Donald Trump [whose charm offensive with North Korea included canceling joint military drills with South Korea]. Is he what made you adopt this viewpoint?
It's a very sensitive question. I won't pinpoint exactly a certain individual but it is common knowledge that the president changes every four years and the Korean people want 100% defense of their country.
Speaking of presidents, a lot of people in Seoul want you to run for the South Korean presidency. Have you any such plans?
I am a fourth term Mayor of Seoul, but because I was elected in a by-election, I've only served a little over 10 years [instead of 16]. So I still have very strong aspirations to complete numerous projects for the city of Seoul. Whether or not I will run for president in the future, I don't know.
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