The son of a farmer turned janitor, Mayor Ko Chang Hu is an approachable, if extremely over-worked, 46-year-old city administrator.
As the youngest mayor ever on the island, Ko acknowledges that some people were worried that his relative youth and inexperience in political administration could be detrimental. But in the past six months people have come to have “positive expectations” about his youth and ability to lead.
Born in Daepo-dong, Seogwipo City, Ko graduated from Jeju National University in 1987 with an LL.B. and a reputation as an activist student leader. Years later, his leadership philosophy is, he says, still about people, “especially the less privileged ones.”
“I believe that the government and the country have responsibilities to protect them. Basically, the central and local governments have the responsibility to create a social system where people are well off.”
Ko cited Korea’s authoritarian past of a “downward, commanding political system” as part of an ongoing problem in politics here. “I believe that what government needs to do is not push their commands downwards but assist its citizens and meet their needs. It shouldn’t try to reign over its people but rather serve them.”
From 1996 until August 1999 Ko was a judge in the district courts of Incheon and Seoul before turning in his judicial robes for civil practise in two big law firms.
As he told The Jeju Weekly in his office in early January, he was proud to fight for disadvantaged people — taking many cases pro bono or for reduced fees — and now works to apply his experience in the law to his role as mayor. He was appointed to Seogwipo’s top job in the summer of 2010 after playing a key role in Governor Woo Keun Min’s campaign. Ko had just set up his own law practice here, which he has since shut down.
▲ Photo courtesy Seogwipo City Hall
The specific powers allotted to this mayorship are relatively new. Before 2006 there were five separate areas. Each had its own elected representatives: the Jeju governor, Seogwipo City and Jeju City mayors, and governors for the northern and southern counties. The law was changed because of turf wars and deadlocks when the county governor and the city mayor happened to disagree on a proposed project. Now the island has been remapped into just two areas — Jeju City and Seogwipo City — and the mayors are appointed by the incoming governor.
“It is true that an appointed mayor has less independence and freedom in establishing and distributing the budget or appointing personnel,” Ko said. “Yet, I am certain that such limits will be alleviated since one of Governor Woo’s crucial policies is to nurture a high degree of decentralization and autonomy within the provincial government.” “Governor Woo has specifically been planning a fundamental autonomy model for the province of Jeju that will be completed by 2013 and applied in 2014.”
Ko, along with the new governor, took office on July 1, 2010. His counterpart is Jeju City Mayor Kim Byoung Lip. In addition to serving his local constituency, Ko is now tasked with helping the governor carry out pledges made during the election. The mayor explained that Woo’s provincial administration and the city of Seogwipo are facing new challenges and changes together. These fall under four categories: finance, economy, social issues, and the future of the city.
“First, my administration is focused on pushing export revenue beyond a trillion won. Eco-friendly agriculture and fisheries as well as bolstering the manufacturing industry will be key to reaching the goal of 340 billion won export revenue by 2014.”
Referring to the UNESCO Geopark, World Natural Heritage, and Biosphere Reserve designation (the so-called “triple crown,”) he said his administration is supporting ecological tourism, tourism services and restaurants to attract Chinese tourists, and a grassroots movement called “Clean and Trash-free Seogwipo City,” all in order to help the governor fulfill his pledge to attract 2 million foreign tourists in the near future.
He spearheaded the “100 Strengths of Seogwipo” campaign in the summer, which solicited any and all ideas — ranging from art, sport, natural scenery and other attractions — from the public that were then evaluated and selected by Vision 21, the advisory organization of Seogwipo City. The final 100 selections were made by 10 judges. Ko said the city will now take those results and use the feedback in marketing events all through 2011. His team is also targeting “certain city-run facilities like the Tangerine Museum, Seobok Exhibition, Seogwipo Astronomy Center, and Seogwipo Moguri Youth Camp” which have been running deficits and need improved management.
Ko is considered by many to be a “reformer” given his age and previous occupation as a lawyer. However Ko brushes away labels like “reformer” and “activist” that his reputation imparts on him in favor of “humanist.” “I want my administration to make people the priority,” he said. “But also I want to change the inertia [in politics]. Rather than following that tide, I endeavor to fix it.” As mayor, he said he takes a more “pluralist” or flexible approach to the myriad issues and needs of the community. “For example, I steadfastly urge reformation and creativity on issues like the obsolete traditions and attitudes of administration by civil servants,” he said. “On the other hand, in regards to Seogwipo’s culture and arts or environmental issues, I have a conservative view that respects tradition and prioritizes preservation.”
On controversial issues like the naval base, Ko says he maintains “a neutral position to understand the gains and losses for each side of the argument and [looks to] negotiate to reach the best result for everybody.” He adds he’s not a “populist” but a “pluralist.” As the leader of Seogwipo City’s administration he seeks “a comprehensive and objective perspective that transcends status, place of origin, and age.”
In light of recent court rulings, demonstrations and arrests of members of civil groups protesting the construction of the naval base at Gangjeong village, Ko is apologetic to the people of Seogwipo and Jeju for not yet having found a solution, adding, “it has been the most important assignment of my mayorship as well as a high priority project for Seogwipo’s local development.”
Ko spoke frankly about the Dec. 22 clash outside the entrance to the naval base, where citizens and eventually a clergyman and members of a civil organization were arrested.
“As mayor, I feel a heavy responsibility about the incident,” he said. “I have yet to lose hope that the issue can be resolved peacefully. Even after the enforced continuation of construction, I have visited Gangjeong village three times to discuss the matter with local residents.”
He said he will continue to look for “a neutral solution” in which the villagers, the navy, and Jeju provincial government can be content, acknowledging that finding a resolution to the Gangjeong naval base issue will be his most important legacy.
When it comes to the day-to-day job itself, Ko described his first few months in office as a struggle. At first he didn’t anticipate the public’s expectations of his (multiple) roles, nor the long hours away from his wife and two sons. He started to burn out and questioned his decision.
Then more recently his office was faced with a scandal when a trusted Seogwipo City Hall employee in charge of allocating construction project contracts took interest-free loans from 20 local firms to finance a gambling Web site set up in Japan. This employee also faces charges in relation to other illegal activities.
“I felt terribly disappointed. In the process, I became very skeptical about the people that surround me. It was a difficult phase,” Ko said.
He has since “regrouped” and puts all of his efforts into successfully dealing with the tasks at hand. When asked which of his three occupations — lawyer, judge or mayor — he preferred, he immediately said being mayor was the most rewarding and being a judge his least favorite.
“In terms of human relationships, a judge cannot socialize with a wide variety of people,” he said, adding judges are very conservative figures in Korean society, much more so than lawyers. “So I quit being a judge rather early. About three and a half years ... In hindsight, I think I made the right choice.”
According to Ko, his experience in the law helps and hinders him as mayor. “The law is the foundation of any politics. So being legally knowledgeable has been very helpful, with the procedures and everything. I could learn very quickly about how it’s run,” he said. “I have greater understanding of the law compared to civil servants who I work with. It gives me greater credibility and trust.” “For the public, also, they trust me about my legal judgments and I have greater authority to speak with.“
Ko has found the political profession to be less about logic and principles. “In that regard, having worked as a lawyer plays a negative role in becoming a good mayor. I need to empathize with the public more ... But instead I’m more inclined to bring legality to the issue and respond with legal counselling.“ “That could be my weakness, depending on the situation.”
He’s also been faced with the necessity for compromise, even in the face of his own personal convictions. Citing environmentalism and development, he said there is a “mindset prevalent in Korean politics” that moves forward recklessly.
“Paving roads and building buildings destroy nature. I think political administrations have felt very little remorse and responsibility on this issue,” he said. While he’s a firm believer in protecting the environment, he has had to “make compromises for pragmatic reasons.”
“In fact, I am a pragmatist as well. It’s difficult to always chase the idealistic model.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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