“MY WIFE can barely contain her happiness,” Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, wrote on his Facebook page on July 27th. The occasion for her ecstasy was that an electric fan had arrived in the household.
In the circumstances, the excitement was understandable. Five days earlier the couple had moved into a rooftop shack in Samyang-dong, a dilapidated neighbourhood on the northern fringes of the megalopolis. The shack is not air-conditioned, and in the sweltering recent weather—South Korea’s hottest on record—temperatures inside topped 50°C. Plus, the fan came with a message of solidarity from the president, Moon Jae-in, a political ally.
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Mr Park, who in June was elected to his third term as mayor, says that by spending a month in Samyang-dong he will learn first-hand about the difficulties that Seoul’s poorer residents face. The stunt has earned him a fair amount of mockery. When City Hall workers delivered ready-made rice porridge to him over the weekend, onlookers questioned the seriousness of Mr Park’s quest to experience “ordinary life”. (City Hall said the porridge was for a breakfast meeting with neighbours.) Ha Tae-kyung, from the conservative opposition, described the move to the roof as a “comedy”. If the mayor really wanted to know about ordinary life, he said, “he should live in the neighbourhood for his entire term.”
Locals queue up at all hours outside the mayor’s temporary home to air their grievances. Yet some are sympathetic. “It’s a good thing he’s doing,” says one neighbour playing in the street with her little grandson. “Why would I complain about someone trying to understand more about our lives?”
The mayor’s stint of living like common folk is a reminder that beyond the city’s glitzy centre many Seoulites still live in flimsy, barely legal dwellings similar to Mr Park’s temporary lodging. These people cannot afford the capital’s sky-high property prices. In many areas, particularly north of the Han river, houses are poorly equipped for Seoul’s steamy summers and biting winters.
For a long time, the city’s approach was to raze such quarters and build brutally utilitarian tower blocks in their place, says Rieh Sun-young, an architecture professor at the University of Seoul. Yet such flats are still expensive and do not always meet the needs of the people they displace—for instance, they are too big for today’s smaller families, couples or young singles wishing to live alone. Ms Rieh hopes that the mayor’s time on the roof will help him develop a more nuanced approach to urban regeneration. Widening streets, refurbishing houses and improving local transport links, libraries and child care would do much more for deprived areas than simply razing them to the ground.
Whether he learns any rooftop lessons or not, Mr Park leaves his Samyang-dong shack later this month, to return to his air-conditioned apartment.