At age 53 after building his third social reform organization in Korea, Won Soon Park has lately added a new title to his business card, “social designer.” It’s as though he finally has arrived at some terminology to describe the ways he continues to strive to move South Korea closer to the just, tolerant and progressive society he knows it could be.
Park’s views are well known, and not just in academic or legal circles. During the ‘90s, he was an outspoken regular guest on a TV debate show, and talked frequently about democracy, human rights reform, philanthropy, and other forms of people power. “If I am taking a taxi downtown, many drivers recognize me and insist they will not accept any fare,” he said. “I’m really sorry for that.”
Park was the guest of the Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Minnesota, on September 10 and spoke about human rights and transitional justice in Korea. He is a much-honored public servant in South Korea, named by the Citizen Times as the “Most Distinguished and Respected Activist in Korea” for three years running. The talk was also co-sponsored by the Department of Asian Languages and Literature, and the Consortium for the Study of the Asias, both at the University.
A soft-spoken and thoughtful conversationalist, Park took an assertive role both on TV and in public life, as the Secretary General of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), which was on the activist edge of democratic and human rights reform in Korea starting in the late ‘90s. Pro-democratic activism made real progress only after the first truly democratically elected president, Dae Jung Kim, came to power in 1998. It has only been 10 years, but the gains in human rights other reforms have been enormous since that time.
Part of the success of the PSPD has been timing. The organization became more influential because it was riding the wave of reform that accompanied the Dae Jung Kim presidency. Part of its success, however, has been Park’s determined and creative leadership, and his belief that organized people can do great things. “The power of citizens is one of the main elements in the post-democratization process,” he said.
The PSPD’s success can be calculated simply by the numbers, Park explained. It proposed 78 pieces of legislation in the early years of the Kim administration, and half became law. Among these were some powerful reform packages, such as an anti-corruption bill and a bill that established a social safety net of a minimum amount of income for each person. Slowly, pressure was brought to bear on the government and legislature through civil action. Established institutions and legal systems needed reform to transform them into organizations that would be in line with a democratic system. The PSPD “was a champion of this change,” he said.
PSPD attorneys built cases against high-ranking government officials and heads of the business conglomerates (chaebols) and appeared in court on the side of the prosecution. “That’s the reason the president of the SK Group (Tae Hyun Cho) and [others from] the Shin Dong-A group were imprisoned. We appeared before the prosecutors with proof of their corruption activities.”
Members of the PSPD became stockholders of some chaebols in 1995 and 1996, Park said, and started building various cases against them. They showed up at stockholder meetings, proof in hand, and spoke out against their practices. “This attracted the concern of the mass media, including many foreign correspondents,” which was why they took the time and effort to do it, he said. These activities had an empowering effect on the society generally, Park said, that a citizens group would have such influence on mega-businesses that were viewed as unstoppable.
In 2000, the start of the new millennium, PSPD decided to do a blacklisting movement. They exposed corruption activities, including violation of the election law and acceptance of bribery, to the public through various publicity and media activities. The effort was well received. Of 86 politicians targeted, about 70 percent of those could not get re-elected, he said.
This was a risky activity for his organization. “We had to be correct because if we were not we could be sued.” High-profile lawyers, professors and intellectuals were important sources of information and symbols of legitimacy for their campaign.
The support of the government for anti-corruption activities after Dae Jung Kim’s election to the presidency in 1998 was crucial to the success of the PSPD. Kim openly went after corruption within the government and in business. Political prisoners who had been imprisoned for many years were released.
Park was also a member of the Lawyers for a Democratic Society (Minbyun). Starting in the mid-1990s, there were a great number of human rights cases, including people tortured and imprisoned due to the so-called National Security Law, which forbids anyone from expressing any support for communist individuals or ideas.
Park studied the cases and in 1990, published three volumes describing them. The purpose was to shine a spotlight on how the government was enforcing this law. “It was a kind of a drama or comedy,” he said of his case law collection on the National Security Law. “There were so many silly cases prosecuted under the law.” Lawyers called them the “makkoli cases,” he said, because the plaintiffs were prosecuted for making the most silly and offhand remarks, like those you would make under the influence of alcohol (makkeoli is homemade rice wine).
“Like a person might say ‘Kim Il Sung is more handsome than Park Chung Hee,’ or ‘Soviet Russia was building the subway earlier than the U.S,’ or ‘Ho Chi Min is a very honest and good person,’ something like that. Anything that could be interpreted as praising communists or communism might be prosecuted.”
Park defended one high-profile case of artist Hak Chul Shin’s painting, in which “bad” influences were at the lower half of the painting (such as Coca-Cola and western influences or consumer products), and the upper half was an idyllic farming scene. The prosecutors tried to prove that the artist was trying to depict South Korea as a corrupting influence and North Korea as paradise. The artist was imprisoned, but his case became famous in illustrating the kind of cases that were being prosecuted.
Park also attributes PSPD’s success to the deep roots of dissent within the Korean people. Opposition to official government has a role and a long history in Korea, Park explained. “Even in the Choson Dynasty… Some bureaucrats were employed by the king and their sole purpose was to criticize the king. Sometimes they were punished. Sometimes they were killed, but still it was the duty of the bureaucrats and the intellectuals to say something against the wrongdoings of the king.”
“People dedicated their lives to saying the correct thing to power. We call it the ‘sunbee spirit,’” he said. “It’s a kind of intellectual who should be humble, poor but do their duty during their time for their people. It was legally guaranteed within the dynasty. Outside the courts, there were so many sunbee around the country. …they were always communicating with each other.”
On urgent or controversial business, Park said, the sunbee would appear before the king holding an axe. Their message was “accept my appearance or kill me.” It is called an “axe-carrying appearance,” he said. This powerful image of public duty has carried through to modern times and can be seen during the Chung Hee Park and Do-Hwan Chun military dictatorships, when the oppression of people’s rights seemed complete “but from time to time, there would be a wave of resistance against the dictatorship. There were so many people who dared to be punished or to be killed,” Park observed.
Park’s personal history of activism began in a dark period of Korean history. In 1975, he was a freshman at Seoul National University, and joined a demonstration against Chung Hee Park. Along with other students, he was rounded up and tossed into prison. He was there for four months. Hundreds of students were imprisoned along with him at that time.
At the time he was arrested as a demonstrator, he said “I had no serious thinking” about why he was joining in with the other students. “It was a kind of a trend.”
There is a lot of time for serious thinking in prison. “I am always recommending to go in prison,” he said without cracking a smile. “It’s a perfect space to think, and look back on your life, and to read many books. It was a fantastic period, actually! If I was not once in prison, I would not enjoy life as I do at the present time.”
While he was in prison, Seoul National University expelled him. After his release, he spent more time on reading, traveling and making friends. “There was no stress about getting a good [academic] record. My parents were really… heartbroken? Yeah. It was good to form my own personality. And to develop my intelligence.”
Park said he read the work of one philosopher who said “the purpose of law is peace, but the process to accomplish it is struggle.” That gave him hope that he was engaging in a struggle that would end in peace for Korean society. He eventually enrolled in another university, graduated, and went to law school. He began practicing law in 1982.
In 2002, after seven years with the PSPD, according to his own personal policy, Park decided he should leave that organization and do something else. He next established the Beautiful Foundation, an organization with a completely different mission.
Back in 1998, he had participated in the Eisenhower Exchange Program, during which he traveled the U.S. and visited some community foundations, such as the Research Triangle Foundation in North Carolina, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Phoenix, Arizona. He was impressed particularly with community foundations supported by and managed for the residents of a community.
The Beautiful Foundation was established to spread the culture of philanthropy in Korea. “We started the One Percent Sharing Movement, to encourage citizens to give one percent of their income, property and everything, even their talents,” he explained. The money goes into the Beautiful Fund, which funds local projects in the communities they serve.
“Last year, we fundraised $12 million. About 90 percent of the individual givers are coming from the internet. It’s a great achievement; it’s an economic way to raise funds.” The success of the One Percent Sharing Movement was covered by CNN News.
The Beautiful Store was also established by the foundation, to sell secondhand items. The store is modeled after U.S. organizations like Salvation Army or Goodwill, or OxFam in the U.K., he said. “Koreans are not accustomed to using secondhand stores or giving away secondhand items,” he said. “They are thinking that secondhand items are carrying the bad spirit of the previous owner.” It is customary for adult children to burn the clothes and possessions of their parents upon their parents’ death, he said. “I challenged this, and we changed it.”
Using a publicity campaign, and with the help of the SBS-TV Network and ChoongAng Daily newspaper, the Beautiful Foundation promoted the idea of its store. The ChoongAng Daily ran one page per week for a year, he said.
“Now it’s universal for people to give secondhand items to the Beautiful Store,” he said. There are 90 branches across the country, and the total sales were around $11 million last year. “I was becoming a conglomerate,” he said. “So I thought it was high time to leave again. The Beautiful Foundation and the Beautiful Store have the infrastructure to be sustainable on their own.”
Although the idea of giving away secondhand items was unfamiliar to Koreans, he said, the idea of giving to the poor and the duty to help one’s community is very familiar, even in communities like the one he lived in during the ‘50s and ‘60s. “There were so many beggars coming to my house and my mother could never refuse to give something. We had another jar containing rice, and it was for beggars.” They also had a sarangbang, a room separate from the main house, where travelers could sleep. “Even poor people would have a room like that,” he said.
There is also the idea of a gye or a doorei, which were originally self-supporting groups in a community, the small-town equivalent of a community foundation. The structure of the doorei would ensure that there would be no starvation among its members. Sometimes, he said, a wealthy person would support one or more doorei.
The idea of a minimum level of social welfare existed even in ancient dynasties, he observed. “But I think during the colonial period, separation of the country, Korean War and under the dictatorships, and poverty, these valuable social systems collapsed. My mission was to restore this tradition of supporting each other.”
The One Percent Sharing Movement was successful, Park believes, “because I was mobilizing our own tradition, not inventing new things.” Now 30,000 individuals are paying one percent of their monthly income. The group that is giving one percent is growing. “Our idea was not to make much money, but to spread the idea of philanthropy; in that sense the idea was great, to give ideas to organizations and government to change the system.”
The foundation is also researching information on how philanthropic giving is growing in South Korea, and supplying that information to media and researchers. He has lectured about community foundations to activists in Korea, asking them to establish their own Beautiful Foundations in their communities, which would be separate from the original foundation.
The Hope Institute, founded in 2005, is Park’s present project. It is a kind of “think tank” of ideas about social organizing. Participants submit ideas and receive comments on it. The Hope Institute structures ideas so that they can get a public airing and be submitted to appropriate organizations for possible adoption, Park said.
The Institute has various programs, such as the Social Invention Center, for inventing improved social programs; The Roots Center, for increasing public participation in local regions, including the Rural Hope Center for improvement in the lives of farmers; the Center for Public Culture, which fosters urban planning ideas and a research center for preserving green space; and the Hope Academy, a training institute for government leaders. The Institute also has several publications about its ideas, such as the Public Imagination newsletter.
For example, some top business leaders or high-ranking officials who are compulsorily retired in South Korea in their late ‘40s and early ‘50s are being invited to retrain at Hope Institute to apply their knowledge and skills in the non-profit sector, Park said. “By doing so, we can recruit many excellent people to the Hope Institute.” Five or six top management officials have been employed by Hope Institute since this program was introduced,” according to Park.
Park describes his own mind as “heavy with so many ideas” about how to continue with social design in Korea. By tapping into South Korea’s greatest resource, its people, Park has led the way from legal reforms to social and policy reforms in a series of organizations that have drawn on the imagination and creativity of people. This social designer is a long way from being finished with his career. “There are still so many ideas —- so many things that have never been tried.”
Reprinted with permission from Korean Quarterly Fall 2008 edition. Korean Quarterly is an volunteer non-profit newspaper of the Korean American community of the Twin Cities and Upper Midwest. Subscription and advertising information is available on the KQ website at: www.koreanquarterly.org. Contributions are tax-deductible. Write to us at: email@example.com