Community building in Korea
Sudden changes in political leadership create a new political vocabulary. The election of Park Won-soon as mayor of Seoul at the end of October this year has given new meaning to ``citizen," ``community" and ``participation," to name but a few. Connecting these words is the concept of community building.
In the context of a large city like Seoul, community building is often thought of as neighborhood building. The two concepts are similar, but community building focuses more on connections between people who share common goals.
Community is more appropriate in Seoul where boundaries between neighborhoods are difficult to discern in many new parts of the city. Finally, communities can transcend geographic boundaries, as the boom online communities shows.
Why all the buzz about community? Community building through citizen participation was one of the key themes of Mayor Park's recent campaign and his election naturally stirred interest in the topic. Until the election, community building in Korea was largely the preserve of specialists in urban planning and in rural planning.
Recent interest in community building in Korea is long overdue. Other advanced countries have been dealing with the issue for years from the lens of various local contexts. In the United States, for example, interest in communities developed in the 1960s as cities declined rapidly in population and quality of life. Experts attributed the loss and, in other cases, outright destruction of communities to the rise of crime and vandalism.
The case of Japan is particularly relevant to Korea. During the economic boom and bubble years, community building was rarely discussed. The economy was booming and cities were growing. Rural areas thrived on generous support from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) political machine. The long history of urbanization in Japan created cities with strong local communities that worked to keep urban ills at bay.
Economic stagnation and a rapidly aging population in Japan since the 1990s forced community building onto the political agenda as rural communities struggled to survive and urban communities lost vitality as local business closed under the weight of competition from discount chain stores. The result has been an unprecedented hollowing out of once thriving communities.
The situation in Korea today has much in common with Japan in the 1990s. Fortunately, Korea has avoided the difficulties of the bursting of an economic bubble, and economic growth remains relatively strong. Starting in 2015, the population of Korea will begin to age rapidly as baby boomers enter their 60s. Combined with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, Korea will soon face a demographic situation similar to Japan. Regional and smaller cities will hollow out rapidly and entire rural communities will be lost.
As economic growth slows and demographic challenges mount, community building may be the only way to keep communities vibrant. It will be critical in attracting residents and businesses. Communities that pool their resources and work toward a common goal will prosper, whereas those that do not will fade. In this context, community building means creating the structures and organizations that promote cooperation.
For community building to work, however, members of the community must feel that they have a voice in the process. This is where democracy comes in. For all Korea's progress in democracy at the national level, participatory democracy at the local level remains a problem. Elected representatives are weak compared to unelected bureaucrats who still make many arbitrary decisions. Local authorities are required to deal with complaints from citizens, but responding to complaints is only different from involving citizens in the decision making process.
At a deeper level, community building is only possible when people feel attached to people and place. Attachment comes from memories and the involvement with others in the community. It is subjective and emotional; it is feelings of belonging and home.
Colonialism, war, rapid development, and the triumph of apartment living in the 20th century left Koreans with a weak sense of place. The ``hometown" (gohyang) that appears in novels, films, and public discourse is a mythical place of the past. Koreans today have moved many times and will move many times more.
The success of community building, then, rests on the success of creating a more stable society where people can put down roots and feel a sense of home. Despite the turmoil of the past, younger Koreans offer reason for hope. As the first generation to be born amid prosperity and democracy, younger Koreans want more from life than money.
Having grown up in apartments devoid of a sense of community, they want to reach out to others both offline and online. And, they have an intuitive understanding of democracy that informs their actions. The challenge for politicians of older generations is to go beyond generational hierarchy and view younger generations as partners ― not subjects ― in community building.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. He can be reached at email@example.com.