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[Herald Interview] Ahn gunning for power transition
Front-runner Ahn Cheol-soo bashes government over COVID-19 response failure and skyrocketing housing prices
Published : Jan 13, 2021 - 12:04
Updated : Jan 13, 2021 - 19:08
People’s Party Chairman Ahn Cheol-soo (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
The post of Seoul mayor is a steppingstone toward taking power from the ruling bloc, according to Ahn Cheol-soo, the Seoul mayoral front-runner and head of the minor opposition People’s Party, saying the government's failures range from its COVID-19 response to its real estate policies. 

Ahn said the government’s loose quarantine measures have prolonged the coronavirus crisis and put self-employed businesspeople and small business owners under even more pressure. 

“The government should shorten the period of freezing society through strong quarantine and then (promptly) focus on the economic recovery once the virus is controlled,” Ahn told The Korea Herald in a recent interview at his office in the National Assembly. 

“The government only prolonged the time of pain by implementing Level 2, Level 2 plus alpha and Level 2.5 social distancing measures,” he said, and has pushed small business owners into a never-ending “Death Valley.”

Ahn -- who ran for president twice, in 2012 and 2017, and once for Seoul mayor in 2018 -- announced last month that he would run in the Seoul mayoral by-election. Ahn was also instrumental in Park Won-soon being elected Seoul mayor in 2011. Park remained mayor until his death in July.

“We’re already past the stage where we can solve the problem by adjusting social distancing levels. We need to find new ways of distancing in terms of dense, close and sealed areas.”

If elected, he would “correct the current unconventional quarantine measures of reducing public transportation services after 9 p.m. that only increases density.”

The Seoul Metropolitan Government has cut down subway and bus services by 30 percent since early last month to encourage people to go home early, but there are concerns that this may be increasing crowding.

The candidate also plans to convert some hospitals, including Seoul Medical Center and Boramae Hospital, into ones dedicated to treating infectious diseases and establish more hospitals to take charge of infectious diseases in the long term.

Ahn also criticized the government over skyrocketing housing prices and the chaos of “jeonse” -- a Korean housing rental system that involves large, refundable lump-sum deposits in lieu of monthly payments -- calling the Moon Jae-in administration and Seoul city government “incompetent.”

“The city of Seoul poured out a huge amount of taxpayers’ money to maintain roads and paint murals, but the living environment has not improved at all,” he said. 

“In the meantime, the housing ladder for ordinary people without homes has been completely cut off due to restrictions on loans that tie down even real users, along with unprecedented tax bombs and strong regulations on redevelopment and reconstruction.”

He plans to announce his real estate pledges this week, but the keywords will be: supply expansion that respects market order; a forward-looking push for redevelopment and reconstruction; and the expansion of housing stability by easing regulations on loans for end users.

In recent opinion polls, real estate is ranked as the No. 1 reason for President Moon Jae-in’s low approval rating. On Monday, Moon said in his New Year’s address that he was “very sorry” to the people who were discouraged by housing difficulties.

In several recent polls, Ahn ranked first out of all the ruling and opposition candidates. When asked how he felt about the results, the front-runner said he is “taking it calmly.”

“In fact, the presidential election is the most important thing. Winning Seoul mayor is a process that is carried out to achieve a power transition in the presidential election. I am running for the victory of the opposition parties.”

As former CEO of the antivirus software company AhnLab, he also envisions a global city with a fair market economy. 

He plans to build a global startup network by linking business networks with key startup centers such as Silicon Valley, Berlin and London. 

Ahn said, “I am confident that my global competence is superior to any other candidate,” citing his education in the US and his research experience with the Max Planck Society in Europe for the past year and a half.

He also shared his view on the nation’s industrial structural problems.

“In short, Korea is the worst combination of neo-liberalism and a government-run economy.”

“The government is completely (denying) the autonomy of large companies while neglecting the relationship between large and small businesses even if unfair trade takes place.”

That autonomy should be given back to companies to create a free and fair economy, he added. 

When asked if he would seek reelection after completing a 14-month term, Ahn said he would leave it for Seoul residents to decide. The winner of the by-election will serve until next year’s local elections, which would have been the end of Park Won-soon’s term. 

“A one-year term is too short to solve the problems in Seoul. But I will do my best to lead the change of Korea through changing Seoul, and to chart the right course for Seoul so that Korea can stand tall.”

“When the term is over, there will be a citizens’ evaluation of what I’ve done. I’ll decide according to their will,” he said.


Below is the full text of the Q&A with Ahn Cheol-soo.


The Korea Herald: How do you feel about leading public opinion polls?

Ahn Cheol-soo: I am taking it calmly. In fact, the presidential election is the most important thing. Winning Seoul mayor is a process that is carried out to achieve a power transition in the presidential election. I am running for election for the victory of the opposition parties.

KH: The pandemic is expected to continue well into 2021. What kinds of policies do you have in mind, including policies for the quarantine system?

Ahn: You can’t completely catch both a rabbit and a hare. You have to choose and focus. The same goes for quarantine and the economy.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, experts from all over the world have spoken in unison.

If you strengthen quarantine measures, you can control the coronavirus, but the economic damage is great. But once the virus is controlled, the economy will recover rapidly. On the contrary, if you loosen quarantine measures, the impact on the economy will be small, but it is difficult to control the virus. 

The government should shorten the period of freezing society through strong quarantine and then (promptly) focus on the economic recovery once the virus is controlled.

But what did the government do?

As the situation was not bad compared with other countries due to the sacrifices of medical staff and the cooperation of the people, they were praising themselves for having caught two rabbits, quarantine and the economy. The government only prolonged the time of pain by implementing Level 2, Level 2 plus alpha and Level 2.5 social distancing measures.
For the self-employed, it is the same. They cannot operate a business normally whether in Level 2 or Level 3. The period of the deficit must be shortened as much as possible, but the government has pushed them into a never-ending “Death Valley.”

We’re already past the stage where we can solve the problem by adjusting social distancing levels. We need to find new ways of distancing in terms of dense, close and sealed areas. 

But most of all, the fundamental solution is to create herd immunity as soon as possible through rapid and extensive vaccinations. I have insisted on the prepurchase of the vaccine since May last year. Looking at the government’s response, it is very pathetic.

If elected, I will convert some hospitals, including Seoul Medical Center and Boramae Hospital, to hospitals dedicated to infectious diseases, and will establish more hospitals to take charge of infectious diseases in the long term.

The risk of infection in smoking areas should not be neglected as it is now. We should prevent infection even by creating a single-person booth. Also, we will correct the current unconventional quarantine measures of reducing public transportation after 9 p.m. that only increases density.
 
Seoul, like other megacities around the world, is a dense, closed, sealed city that is vulnerable to infectious diseases.

The population of Seoul is 9.7 million, about 19 percent of the total population (52 million), but 30 percent of the cumulative confirmed cases come from Seoul. We will spare no effort in investing in health care and civic safety so that the capital, Seoul, can become a city that has at least the national average level of safety.


KH: Please tell us about your pledge to stabilize the real estate market in Seoul.

Ahn: The skyrocketing housing prices and the “jeonse” chaos have crushed citizens’ dreams and hopes. It is because of the incompetence of the Moon Jae-in administration and Seoul City.

In fact, the city of Seoul poured out a huge amount of taxpayers’ money to maintain roads and paint murals, but the living environment has not improved at all.

In the meantime, the housing ladder for ordinary people without homes has been completely cut due to restrictions on loans that tie down even real users, unprecedented tax bombs and strong regulations on redevelopment and reconstruction.

I plan to announce real estate pledges this week, but the keywords will be supply expansion that respects market order; a forward-looking push for redevelopment and reconstruction; and the expansion of housing stability by easing regulations on loans to end users.


KH: What kinds of efforts are you going to make to globalize Seoul and attract foreign investment?

Ahn: Freedom and security are the foundation of prosperity.

We will create a Seoul of continuous innovation where talented people from around the world gather.

We will change the paradigm for the city through contemplation at the macro level, not makeshift measures and symptomatic treatment. 

The key is to create a city where you can live without worries. 

We will attract foreign investment by improving safety infrastructure such as transportation and health, while developing Seoul as a mecca of future industries related to the “fourth industrial revolution.” We will attract foreign talent by solving housing problems caused by soaring real estate prices.
We will build a global startup network by linking business networks with key startup cities such as Silicon Valley, Berlin and London. 


KH: As a former CEO, what do you think is the biggest problem that Korean businesses face?

Ahn: In short, Korea is the worst combination of neo-liberalism and a government-run economy.

The government is completely (denying) the autonomy of large companies while it neglects the relationship between large and small businesses even if unfair trade takes place.

Both results are the same. Large companies are deprived of their autonomy due to the government, while small and medium-sized companies are deprived of their autonomy due to large companies. Failure to make new creative ideas or challenges is the fundamental problem of our economy. How to give autonomy back to companies, so breaking the bad habits of the government-run economy and creating a free economic market where a fair economy is possible, is the key.


KH: More than half a million foreigners live in Seoul, and the number of multicultural families is increasing day by day. Are you planning to implement policies to improve quality of life for foreign residents?

Ahn: Improving the quality of life of Seoul citizens, such as jobs, housing and safety, will lead to the improvement of the quality of life of multicultural and foreign residents.

We will review the progress of the current basic policy plan for foreign residents and multicultural families (2019-2023) in Seoul and make up for the deficiencies.

A global city is a city where foreigners can live comfortably like their hometowns.

Only when an open atmosphere with respect to cultural diversity is created and a living infrastructure without worrying about education, medical care and housing is established will talented people from all over the world flock to Seoul without worries. 


KH: If you become the mayor, do you plan to seek reelection after completing your 14-month term?

Ahn: A one-year term is too short to solve the problems in Seoul. But I will do my best to lead the change of Korea through the change of Seoul, and to set Seoul right up so that Korea can stand right.

When the term is over, there will be a citizens’ evaluation and demand for what I did. I’ll decide according to the will of the citizens.

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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