|Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon / Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government|
By Kim Hyo-jin
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon urged President Park Geun-hye to step down immediately, Monday, so the country can have a chance to elect a new leader early.
In an interview with The Korea Times, Mayor Park, considered a potential candidate for the race to Cheong Wa Dae next year, said public confidence for the President has already completely eroded, making it impossible for her to conduct duties both domestic and abroad.
The mayor was among 1 million-strong participants who gathered in central Seoul, Saturday, to demand the President's immediate resignation. This was the largest protest in South Korea since the democratic uprising in June 1987.
As Seoul mayor, he provided active support for protesters, such as increasing transportation, makeshift toilets and safety guards.
"It is obvious that people lost confidence in her and do not want her to carry on in the leader's role," the mayor said.
"We can't neglect overflow of public anger and anxiety. The only solution is her immediate resignation to pave the way for an early presidential election."
The Park Geun-hye administration has been paralyzed for nearly a month by an unprecedented scandal involving her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil.
Park has been pressured to resign following shocking allegations that Choi, despite having no public posting, had meddled in state affairs while accessing classified information and exerting influence on the economic, diplomatic and defense policies adopted by Park.
Despite Park's repeated apologies and an offer to accept a new prime minister appointed by the opposition-dominated National Assembly, public outrage at Park is showing no signs of abating.
While the leadership of the main opposition party and the party's potential presidential candidate Moon Jae-in remained cautious of calling for the President's resignation out of concern about its aftermath, Mayor Park did not hesitate.
He vowed to lead the move to oust the President along with another vocal critic of Park Geun-hye: Ahn Cheol-soo, former leader of the minor opposition People's Party.
Both agreed Wednesday to arrange an emergency gathering of opposition and civic leaders to discuss how to push for the plan.
"It's urgent to take action rather than remaining in despair," he said. "For me, politics is all about responding to the public voice _ listening to them carefully, empathizing with their pain and jointly making alternatives."
He has participated in daily anti-President candlelit rallies since early this month. Citizens have assembled every day in central Seoul, calling for the President's resignation. The mayor said communicating with the public hardened his hawkish stance against the scandal-ridden President.
Her resignation may deprive Mayor Park of a chance to run in the next presidential election.
If the incumbent president resigns, a presidential election should be held in 60 days, according to the Constitution. However, the Election Law stipulates that a public official who hopes to run in the presidential race should quit his or her job 90 days before the election.
"At this point, my political interest doesn't matter at all. I stepped forward, with a determination that I can give up everything I have," he said.
Major presidential candidate
Mayor Park has been one of the major potential presidential candidates from the opposition bloc along with ex-presidential runners Moon and Ahn.
The Seoul mayoral position has been viewed as the fastest route to becoming a major presidential runner thanks to its high public profile and political influence.
Former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak was elected president in 2007 after prompting notable administrative achievements like redeveloping the urban stream of Cheonggyecheon. His successor Oh Se-hoon of the conservative Saenuri Party became a key potential presidential runner following his drastic move to put a free school meal program up for referendum in 2011.
Their predecessor Goh Kun served as acting president when ex-President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached by the National Assembly in 2004 and emerged as a major competitor to then-presidential hopefuls Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak.
Mayor Park did not earn his fame just because of the mayoral post. The 60-year-old, a former human rights lawyer, is a symbolic figure of the civic movements of the 1990s and 2000s.
Starting his activist career with the progressive civic group People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in 1994, he drew much attention by launching the Beautiful Foundation, a social enterprise committed to encouraging citizens to donate 1 percent of their income, and the Beautiful Store, a charity shop modeled on the U.K.'s Oxfam.
Park's achievements made while serving the two mayoral terms since 2011 have been credited for being citizen-friendly. He implemented the "half tuition" policy for University of Seoul and a plan to provide 80,000 units of public rental housing by 2018. He has led the free school meal program and operated nighttime buses.
"My administrative paradigm is putting people first," he said. "I channeled my focus into increasing investment in citizens rather than prompting construction to build more fancy buildings."
He said he hopes to do politics that can "preserve dignity" of every single citizen.
"Our society has been ravaged by inequality, unfairness, insecurity and lack of communication. The people's sovereignty has literally malfunctioned while they suffer a high suicide rate, low birthrate, increasing non-regular workers and skyrocketing household debts," he noted.
"Rooting out corruption and irregularities will be the first step to fixing this abnormality."
North Korea policies
Mayor Park has called on the government to resume exchanges with North Korea. Calling it a "Northern New Deal," he claims the South should utilize the North's abundant personnel, resources and transport connections to the continent as a way of overcoming the sluggish economy as well as strengthening security.
"Unconditional sanctions against Pyongyang cannot be a solution to North Korea's nuke issue," he said, pointing out its second to fifth nuclear tests were conducted under the conservative South Korean governments. "Seoul should take the diplomatic leverage by seeking a vision of peaceful coexistence."
He is a vociferous critic of the Park Geun-hye administration's North Korea policies, including the closure of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, a flagship inter-Korean business project, and the decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery on Korean soil.
"These kinds of abrupt policies could provoke the North, thereby potentially harming national security," he said.
The mayor asserted THAAD deployment, in particular, should be reconsidered from square one.
"The decision-making procedure excluded the people and lack of communication brought a national division," Park said. "Not to mention, the government made a diplomatic mistake, interpreting the decision as a matter of choosing one side between the U.S. and China.
"Such errors cannot be just overlooked. The planned deployment should be reexamined at the National Assembly."