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Seoul mayor in hot water over safety

June 7, 2016 - 16:22 By Kim Da-sol
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon is on the hot seat amid escalating criticism over his governing ability with regard to the recent deadly safety accident and prolonged conflicts with civic activists concerning city affairs.

Park has 1 1/2 years left in his second term.

During a press briefing Tuesday, Park said that safety measures discussed in the past had mostly not considered the real conditions at work sites and had been “empty talk.”

He added, “I will stop blaming the past and continue to think about how to build a safe system with thorough investigation.”
Seoul City Mayor Park Won-soon speaks during a press conference on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
The conference was held following the death of a 19-year-old subway mechanic on May 28 while repairing a screen door at a Seoul subway station. The death had sparked outcry against the “unfair” treatment of irregular workers.

Despite Mayor Park’s promise to amend the situation, public criticism continued and news reports accused Seoul Metro, operator of the subway lines, of a bureaucratic operation with executive members who were closely associated with Park.

More than 40 percent of employees at Eunsung PSD, a company that had been subcontracted by subway operator Seoul Metro for screen door maintenance, were found to be the former staff of Seoul Metro. Kim was hired as a subcontractor for Ensung PSD.

According to a payroll sheet by Eunsung PSD in 2015, a total of 38 former Seoul Metro staff had received an extra 90 million won in “welfare costs.”

The revelation has sparked heated debate over the current operation of the city subway lines and even led to the coining of the word “Mefia,” -- a combination of “Metro” and “mafia.”

Following the fatal accident, about 180 executive officials of Seoul Metro on Sunday turned in their resignations.

But the public still voiced concern over whether the organizational reshuffle of the company would fundamentally resolve the deep-rooted personnel practice and unfair working environment of employees at subcontracted companies. Others also called it mending the gate after the horse has bolted, pointing out that Kim’s death was the third fatal accident of its kind to occur since 2013.

Faced with criticism toward the revolving-door employment system that secures stable positions for retired city officials while neglecting the working environment of less well-paid workers, Mayor Park said during Tuesday’s briefing that he would immediately delete the contract clauses which give Seoul Metro staff an advantage in being hired at subcontractor companies. The city will also run a direct company that handles the subway safety management system, he added.

Park, who has often been dubbed as the likely presidential candidate for the opposition, has continuously underlined that he has a deep belief in the value of communication.

“Communication is the greatest infrastructure,” he said. He has also been an adroit user of social media, such as by airing the one-person media broadcast “Won-soon’s X-file” every Thursday night. He said that it was to communicate better with citizens regarding sensitive issues in Seoul.

As a popular politician among the liberals, Park’s status as the mayor of the country’s capital has been considered a sure ticket to gaining his presidential candidacy in the upcoming presidential race.

“Recent incidents surely caused damage to Mayor Park’s political move, but it was something that Korea’s entire political circle should feel responsible for. That’s why Mayor Park needs to take the bull by the horns, by himself,” Youn Tae-gon, a political analyst told The Korea Herald.

“Park will be able to come up with an answer by having more talks with media and citizens and he should resolve the issue in a calm manner,” he added.

According to a poll on some 3,000 adults here released by Real Meter on Sunday, Park held an approval rating of 6.7 percent, a 1.2 percentage point fall compared to the previous week. He particularly suffered a decline in ratings among young respondents within the past week, with an about 3.7 percentage point fall among those in their 20s and a 3.3 percentage point fall among those in their 30s.

It is not Mayor Park’s first time at the center of social conflicts.

Another of them is a dispute with parents and civic group members of children with development disabilities who claim he has been ignoring their calls to talk.

Parents and members of the Korean Parents’ Network for People with Disabilities have been staging an all-night sit-in protest at the back gate of Seoul city hall since May 4. They have been urging Seoul City to accept their proposals to support housing facilities for those with developmental disabilities and a pension plan. Over the last month, the main entrances to the city hall have been ordered to be blocked to deter civic group members from entering the building.

Last Friday, Park eventually made an appearance at the back gate for a two-hour long conversation. He reportedly recommended that protesters join the city-run task force and resolve the situation through talk.

Seoul City explained that it was difficult for the city to accept the group’s proposals. It added that supporting their proposal requires a lot of funding as well as in-depth discussion with the central government.

Park has also been mired in an issue with residents and redevelopment association members of the Okbaraji Golmok in Jongno, where most of the buildings in the alley have been demolished for the redevelopment project.

The alley was approved for redevelopment by Seoul Metropolitan Government in July 2015 after it was designated as a redevelopment zone in 2006, citing it as “suitable for redevelopment considering the area’s poor infrastructure and the age of the buildings.”

Some of the residents and civic groups have been resisting the demolition citing the site’s historical value of having been the temporary home of activists that had fought for independence in the 1930s.

Park visited the site three weeks ago after a physical dispute on May 17 between the resisting residents and a gang trying to vacate Gubonjang, one of the remaining buildings.

“Even if it costs me a compensation suit, I will block (forced evacuation) by all means,” Park had said. While Seoul City has vowed to eradicate forced evacuations in the city’s development projects since 2013, there are no ordinances to protect residents who are evacuated from their own homes in the course of redevelopment, nor can the mayor stop the demolition.

Some viewed Mayor Park’s actions to stop the forcible removal as belated.

While the demolition of the remaining houses has been halted since then, Mayor Park proposed to have marathon talks with those involved to seek a solution. But it is undecided whether the discussion will be held due to protesters opposing the participation of the builder and the redevelopment association.

Meanwhile, Seoul City announced Tuesday that it would speed up the follow-up investigation into the subway platform accident on May 28 by forming a committee comprised of city officials, Seoul Metro officials and experts. Kim Ji-hyoung, a former justice of the Supreme Court will head the committee and complete the fact-finding process by July.

“I will look for various methods to resolve the situation and for the better working environments of young workers, part-time workers and subcontractor workers,” said Park at a press briefing.

“I will move on with a new attitude, disposing old habits and starting from the beginning, thinking that 1 percent in safety means 100 percent safety,” added Park.

By Kim Da-sol (