HIGHLIGHTS

  • PARK and PSPD assiduously monitored the stewardship of the country’s movers and shakers and exposed the human rights records of lawyers and judges and pressured the judiciary to be “fair in the application of the law”.
  • It advanced legislation banning corrupt practices in government and protecting whistleblowers; it hounded regulatory agencies to investigate fraud and waste in government contracts.
  • As an activist and institution builder Park strives to expand South Korea’s democracy by expanding the power of its citizens.
  • The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation board of trustees recognizes “his principled activism fostering social justice, fair business practices, clean government, and a generous spirit in South Korea’s young democracy.”

 CITATION

In less than a hundred years, Korea has suffered the loss of its sovereignty, foreign occupation, civil war and partition, and then poverty, dictatorship, and industrialization–all this before South Korea’s dizzying breakthrough to democracy and prosperity in the past two decades. Despite recent successes, Park Won Soon believes that South Korea still suffers from “lingering authoritarian styles of leadership” and other ills arising from its past. More democracy is the cure. As an activist and institution builder, Park strives to expand South Korea’s democracy by expanding the power of its citizens.

Born in 1956, Park grew up under military dictatorship in South Korea. At the age of nineteen, he tasted the hard hand of the state. Arrested for joining a political demonstration, he was imprisoned for four months and expelled from his law course at Seoul National University. Persevering, he passed the bar examinations in 1980 and threw himself headlong into South Korea’s emerging democracy movement. He became a human rights lawyer. Forgoing the rewards of a conventional legal career, he took up the cause of political prisoners and victims of media censorship, torture, and other authoritarian abuses.

Then, as the political tide began to turn, Park addressed himself to South Korea’s troubled transition to democracy. In 1994, he helped form People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD). Under Park’s leadership from 1996, PSPD assiduously monitored the stewardship of the country’s movers and shakers. It exposed the human rights records of lawyers and judges and pressured the judiciary to be “fair in the application of the law;” it advanced legislation banning corrupt practices in government and protecting whistleblowers; it hounded regulatory agencies to investigate fraud and waste in government contracts. Park’s PSPD also championed the rights of minority shareholders in Korea’s domineering business conglomerates and filed lawsuits against executives for illicit transactions and insider trading. In 2000, it mounted a controversial blacklist campaign naming eighty-six candidates “unfit to run” for seats in parliament. Fifty-nine of them were rejected by voters. By this time, PSPD had become a national force.

Park stepped down as head of PSPD in 2002 to lead The Beautiful Foundation, a PSPD offshoot. Aiming to rekindle Korean habits of generosity and to popularize philanthropy, Park challenged individuals and companies to donate just one percent of their income or time. More than twenty-six thousand people have done so. The Foundation redistributes the money to the needy and to local public-interest groups. Meanwhile, in the Foundation’s chain of Beautiful Stores, volunteers recycle donated goods and clothing for sale to low-income shoppers.

For Park Won Soon, philanthropy itself is not really the issue. His is a larger vision: a “just society” in Korea. To achieve this, he says, “we cannot depend on the bureaucracy and businessmen.” Civil society must take the lead. Moreover, Korea today is becoming more complicated. “We are stepping up as the world’s tenth trade power,” he says. “We should be prepared to design our future in the right direction. ” Park is doing just that at his newly established Hope Institute, an independent think tank where ordinary citizens convene to devise pragmatic, policy-oriented ideas to guide and strengthen South Korea’s ongoing democratization.

Thinking of the rising gulf between South Korea’s rich and poor today, of corruption and abuses of power in public life, and of the moral confusion arising from rapid social change, Park admits, “We have a long way to go.” His own optimism is based on the power of social movements. “Hope does not fall from the sky,” he says. “We create hope ourselves.”

In electing Park Won Soon to receive the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the board of trustees recognizes his principled activism fostering social justice, fair business practices, clean government, and a generous spirit in South Korea’s young democracy.

 RESPONSE

The Honorable Chief Justice, Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and dear friends.

I am so pleased to be here today, but at the same time, I feel guilty, because I stand alone in this great place without my colleagues who deserve to be here with me.

I always thought that good work could not be achieved by one person but by a group of people who share a common dream and common goals. This award is a result of not only my work but the work we have done together to make a better world. There are people who really care about our society, people who dream about a new alternative world with all of their being, and people who are willing to be members and contribute money for a common cause and the public interest.

Indeed these are the people who should be here with me today. These are people who donate their knowledge, wisdom, money, time, and talent for a better society. I would like to share this glorious award with all of them.

Tonight, I feel light as a feather, because I was awarded this esteemed prize. But I also feel heavy-hearted, because I can sense difficulties and barriers looming in the near future. It will give me more to do than what I have already done.

The People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and The Beautiful Foundation have both played an important role in Korean society and have changed the lives of Korean people.

We have walked the path of democratization and humanization in the face of military dictatorship in much the same way as the Filipino people have. We have all come a long way.

People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, on which I worked from 1994 to 2002, tried to strengthen transparency and accountability in society through various campaigns and strategies, to increase government efficiency and to stop corporate corruption. We also protected small shareholders’ rights and challenged the top management of big corporations to take their social responsibilities to heart.

On the other hand, the Beautiful Foundation, which I served for the last six years, tried to expand the culture of giving in South Korea, and to build the bridge of unity in this divided society. Through our 1% sharing movement, which is such a magic number, shoe-shine boys, peddlers, and many others, poor or middle class, joined the campaign.

I have always believed and shouted out loud that the world can be changed by citizens’ power. With this catch-phrase, I helped ordinary citizens participate in politics, economics, and social issues and encouraged them to play a significant role in our society. As a result, these collective efforts achieved a field of blooming flowers called participatory democracy — flowers which have now replaced disinterest and disregard.

This achievement is, however, just a starting point. This long journey has yet to achieve a deeper and wider democracy, higher humanism, and a more rational and systematic society within and beyond Korean society. And I still dream about reaching these goals in my every waking moment. This is why I felt guilt and heavily burdened when I was informed about winning the Magsaysay Award.

I deeply appreciate this award and extend my blessing to the President of the Magsaysay Award Foundation, its trustees, and all you distinguished attendants.

Today, I regard this most honorable Magsaysay Award as a constant reminder for me to be more diligent and consistent in my political journey with all of my friends — friends just like you.

SALAMAT. Thank you very much.

 BIOGRAPHY

In South Korea, a long history of colonial rule, partition and war, and authoritarian regimes stifled the development of a vibrant civil society. Yet the people of South Korea have drawn deep on their own cultural resources to courageously pursue, despite the obstacles and dangers, the goals of freedom and democratization.

After the fall of the military dictatorship in South Korea in 1987, Koreans quickly realized (as did people in other post-authoritarian societies) that while leaders of government can be changed in a matter of days, the work of building democratic institutions and transforming society is protracted, difficult, and often unspectacular work. In the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, a complex challenge has been that of empowering citizens to collectively take into their own hands the preservation and expansion of their freedom and the course of their own social and economic development.

One person who has stood up to meet the day-to-day, step-by-step challenge of building a strong civil society in his country is fifty-year-old Korean human rights lawyer and social activist Park Won Soon.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)