North Korea talks have gone nowhere for months, but the mayor of Seoul — a capital city just 35 miles from Kim Jong-un’s expanding ballistic missile threat — insists that peace will ultimately prevail, Pyongyang will give up its nuclear weapons, and the Korean Peninsula will be reunified.
Mayor Park Won-soon, a popular human rights activist and potential candidate for South Korea’s presidency in 2022, said in an interview on a Washington visit that President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in deserve credit for making “great progress” in the pursuit of denuclearization and calmer relations with the Kim regime over the past three years, despite the apparent stalemate in talks.
“In the journey to peace and to reunification, I always emphasize that we are not climbing just one mountain, we are climbing a range of mountains and, of course in this process, we will face a lot of difficulties,” Mr. Park, a member of Mr. Moon’s ruling Democratic Party, told The Washington Times. “However, peace will be settled and the two Koreas will achieve reunification. I am certain on this point.”
Mr. Park, 63, who is serving an unprecedented third consecutive term, also touched on other issues, including his passion to make Seoul a world leader in the fight against climate change and the city’s emergence as a top spot for tech startups in a market that boasts the fastest internet speeds on earth.
Mr. Park’s primary focus on his U.S. trip was the expanding bilateral economic alliance. In addition to Washington, he was making stops in San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York.
“From Korea’s perspective, it is very important to secure investment from the United States,” said Mr. Park, who noted Seoul’s “40,000 tech startups established” last year alone. The Seoul metropolitan area has a population of roughly 25 million — larger than Greater New York City.
“For them to not only do well in Seoul, but also enter into the global market, we need more investment and capital,” the mayor said. “They also need technical cooperation.”
American investors, particularly in Silicon Valley, hear the message. Mr. Park said his team on the U.S. visit has secured some $430 billion in investments for developing tech firms in Seoul. “We would like to expand such investment down the road,” he said.
The China 5G factor
Part of Seoul’s pitch for U.S. tech investments is South Korea’s role in Washington’s increasing push to undercut China in the competition for global telecommunications networks.
Mr. Park said private investment from the U.S. and Europe is outstripping Chinese investment in South Korea, helping Seoul’s vibrant tech sector emerge as the go-to alternative for countries wary of inviting Chinese firms into their emerging national 5G networks.
The Trump administration has been pressuring U.S. allies for two years to blacklist Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from 5G contracts because of concern that the company is tied too closely to the Chinese government and intelligence services and will be used as an international spying front for the ruling Communist Party. Allies such as Australia and New Zealand have said they will block Huawei, but the response in Europe has been far more mixed.
Seoul is among a handful of cities at the center of the fight, given that South Korea last year was first in the world to roll out a nationwide 5G network. The effort was pushed by the South Korean firm SK Telecom as well as the Seoul-based multinational conglomerate and world-leading smartphone vendor Samsung.
But the 5G landscape is complex, with tech marketing and supply chains spanning borders around the world. China’s Huawei quietly launched a 5G development lab in Seoul last year, and many South Korean firms that have supplied parts to Huawei are now grappling with navigating Washington’s boycott push.
With Seoul pulled between China and the United States, Mr. Park walked a delicate line on the future of 5G. He suggested that Seoul’s priorities are clear.
“With regard to the 5G market, China is rather a competitor than a partner,” he said, while American and international firms have a straightforward way to avoid dealing with suspect Chinese firms. “The alternative is Seoul and the many tech companies in Seoul,” he said.
“The companies based in Seoul and across South Korea have excellence in technology, but also a transparent culture and have been building a great trust with counterparts in America,” Mr. Park said. “In this sense, America will be a great partner for Korea but also in a way that serves the interests of American companies as well.”
He gently bemoaned the speed of internet service in Washington compared with back home.
“We can’t really comfortably use our phones [here] because the internet speed is so slow, much slower than that of Seoul,” the mayor said. “The same goes for other countries as well. When we travel to other countries, the internet speed is so much slower. So I think in terms of technology, 5G and internet speed, Korea has an absolute advantage over other countries.”
Passionate backing of Seoul as an emergent tech startup hub has bolstered Mr. Park’s stature as a city leader with increasing global reach.
But the mayor, who visits other world capitals often and travels with an entourage — staffers said 28 South Korean journalists were in tow during his U.S. visit over the past week — sidesteps questions about his political future and the prospect of a presidential run.
“It is God’s call whether I will be running or not,” he said.
Mr. Park has also attracted attention for his efforts to turn Seoul into an environmentally friendly city, including an award-winning initiative that began by planting 10 million trees.
The mayor said tree planting has surpassed expectations and that the city now aims to plant a total of 30 million by the end of this year. It is part of a push to cut Seoul’s carbon emissions. The city is backing clean energy sources while reducing traffic with an anti-pollution initiative that would rotate days cars are allowed on the city’s streets based on their license plate numbers.
“For me personally, it is one of my biggest priorities to build a sustainable city that can respond properly to the climate change …,” the mayor said. “By 2025, we are planning to reduce 1 ton of carbon emissions per person.”
Mr. Park remains a major proponent of the 2015 Paris Agreement but diplomatically sidesteps a view on President Trump’s decision in 2017 to pull the U.S. out of the climate accord.
Patient for peace
The mayor joins Mr. Moon in strongly supporting Mr. Trump’s personal diplomacy aimed at resolving the North Korea nuclear crisis.
“Right now, the inter-Korean relations have reached a stalemate,” Mr. Park said. “[But] compared to the past, there has been great progress, especially since President Moon took office. Inter-Korean summits and talks have convened three times, and President Trump has met Chairman Kim Jong-un three times. This is great progress.
“This is a whole process of building records one by one, and ultimately I believe denuclearization and also sanctions lifting will be achieved in the future and maybe we can dream of one day American companies investing in North Korea,” he said.
North Korea is “a closed regime,” he said. “However, there will be possibilities, and in the future I believe they will open up to the global world just like China did in the past.”
Mr. Park strongly backed a 2018 agreement by North and South Korean officials to jointly bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.
“We are planning to host the 2032 Olympics in cooperation with the city of Pyongyang, and in this sense we also need support from America,” he said.
“Our duty,” Mr. Park said, “is to create a very peaceful atmosphere so that they can open up in the future.”