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Town Meetings for Foreign Residents of Seoul
By Alan Timblick
President of The Seoul Times
Foreigners at a local mud festival

The Town meeting is a concept of local government which has been practiced in certain areas of the USA since the 18th Century. It is in a way the purest form of democracy, involving citizens who speak for themselves directly rather than electing representatives to vote for them. It has its roots in the political philosophy of the Swiss thinker, Jean Jacques Rousseau, who preferred this form of self government to the parliamentary system which we now see as the standard of democratic societies.

He came from a country where the independence of cantons and smaller townships actually made it possible and workable to run society on the basis of full participation in decision taking. France, the country where he settled for most of his life and where he buried and is respected as a national hero, was too large and the population too numerous for this form of government to be workable.

The Metropolitan Government of Seoul has been holding Town Meetings involving and engaging the non-Korean residents for the past 11 years. With participation varying from 90 to over 200, there have been 13 of such meetings since October 2000, occurring roughly once per year.

Since there are now over 300,000 non-Korean nationals residing within the boundaries of the City of Seoul – roughly three out of every hundred will be someone with a foreign passport – there is a strong need to make sure that the interests and welfare of these people are taken care of.

It is true that the permanent residents among them, or holders of F5 Visa status, have the right to vote in local elections and thus do take part in the selection of representatives who make the decisions affecting their daily life, but the number of these is relatively small – it was reckoned to be around 10,000 on the first occasion that this rule was brought into force.

This means that the vast majority do not have any legal right to exert any impact at all on the rules and regulations which might impact upon them.

The Town Meetings are therefore a singularly unique opportunity for the foreign residents.

Over the years, the topics presented and discussed at Town Meetings have ranged from transportation, housing, education, the environment, health insurance and medical services, to waste disposal, leisure facilities and immigration.

Usually officials from the relevant departments have given a presentation, followed by a question and answer session. There is also time given for free discussion when proposals and issues are aired from the floor.

During the course of these meetings, concrete proposals are made by foreign residents which, although they may not be adopted on the spot, have certainly made an impact on the policies of SMG. During the four years from 2006 to 2009, the Town Meetings brought forth 67 separate proposals, of which 17 have been in some way adopted into City policies and a further 7 have influenced the guidelines of other relevant authorities.

Seoul City has also made efforts to judge the level of satisfaction among the foreign residents by holding periodic surveys of opinion as regards general living conditions. These surveys deal with the overall impression as well as concentrating on five different specific areas: culture, transportation, education, living and medical services. In all categories there have been a distinct improvement over the past three annual surveys and the overall satisfaction rate has reached over 75% among those sampled.

The surveys act as a useful reality check to help steer future policies which impact on the foreign communities, which are becoming more and more numerous and a permanent feature of the demographic make-up of the city.

The efforts of Seoul City are echoed in developments taking place at a national level within the Korean Immigration Service. While in the past the function of that service has in general to ensure that those entering Korea were not of an undesirable character, a new policy has emerged under which the mission is to help create “A World Class Open Society” in which foreigners live in harmony with Koreans.

This involves not just ensuring compliance with the laws but helping to build a system of social integration and a society in which immigrants human rights are protected. The proposed policy development goes even further, towards a proactive immigration policy as a part of National Development, helping to ensure that the country has the appropriate mix and quantity of human resources to cope with the needs of a growing 21stCentury society, especially given the demographic projections for the next half century.

Before the end of this year there will be another Town Meeting for the foreign residents. It will take place under the aegis of Seoul’s new Mayor, to be elected on 26th October. Even well before the election preparations are well in hand within Seoul City’s Foreign Residents Assistance Division and Seoul Global Center. The dialogue is an on-going process which is expected to continue to produce constructive results over the years to come.

At the same time, there is a need for action at the local community level for interaction, communication and dialogue between the guest and host populations to ensure closer integration. Rousseau’s image of citizens debating under the village oak tree is one to be fostered in twenty first century Seoul.

Alan Timblick serves as President of The Seoul Times. He grew up in England, graduated from Oxford University, and has lived in Seoul for over three decades. A former banker, he also worked for the Korean government as head of Invest Korea and for Seoul City as head of the Seoul Global Center.






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