How many ways can one individual help transform society for the better? 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Park Won Soon, dubbed as Korea’s foremost social designer, has proven through Greatness of Spirit that there is only one answer: INFINITE.
Some people can’t leave well enough alone. Park Won Soon is one of them. In the first place, as a child growing up in a repressive military dictatorship, he had this burning passion in him, to make things better – or the best that they could be — not just politically, but, possibly, in every aspect of society.
Today, Park Won Soon is the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Public Service, in recognition, so the citation goes, for his “principled activism fostering social service, fair business practices, clean government and a generous spirit in South Korea’s young democracy.”
It all began even before Park was born in March, 1956, to a poor farming family in Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, South Korea. His foresighted father, dreaming of a better future for his son, sent Park to school in Seoul. The boy graduated from high school in 1975 and was accepted in the prestigious Seoul University College of Law. But Park’s activist nature even then impelled him to join a demonstration against the regime, and aged 19, a freshman law student, he was jailed for four months and eventually dismissed from university.
The four month-long incarceration, however, resulted in an unexpected development. In prison, with time on his hands, Park had his personal epiphany: he would devote his future life to bringing about changes and improvements in his country, including institutionalization and democratization projects. They were big, ambitious thoughts for a young man, but he was resolute and determined, missionary zeal burning in his heart.
Despite all odds, Park persisted in his studies, acquiring a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Dankook University, Seoul, and passing the 22nd state bar examination in 1980. He was subsequently appointed a government prosecutor, but after two years resigned to become a human rights lawyer, defending political prisoners and aligning himself with the ongoing democracy movement.
In 1994, Park made another life-changing switch. He gave up his law practice to co-found the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), a grassroots crusade against corrupt public officials.This time, he was taking on more openly the powerful and entrenched political establishment . The surprise was that, like David against Goliath in the Biblical tale, PSPD won the fight. Barely five years after it was organized, PSPD succeeded – with overwhelming people – powered support – to bar from election in 2000 almost all the candidates it had listed as “corrupt and unfit” for public office.
Having accomplished his goal of setting in motion a political-social reform by peaceful means, Park now totally gave up his law practice and his post as secretary – general of PSPD to take the helm of another, even more idealism-based organization he conceptualized and founded: the Beautiful Foundation, Korea’s first community foundation and today the leading not-for-profit organization of the country. To a Park-watcher, it would seem that the man was now detaching himself from the materialistic world and entering the realm of the visionary. The year was 2000 and Park was 49.
Facets of Park’s character are revealed in two acts. One is the open will, made public recently, where he acknowledges he is able to accomplish good things because of the love and support of his wife Kang Nang Hee, an interior designer and mother of his two children, a daughter named Park Da In, 23, and a son, Park Ju Sin, 21. “I want to meet you again in my next life,” he avows, adding, “I will lead a life of sharing even in the next life.” Earlier, in fact, in a demonstration of principled sharing when he began working with the Beautiful Foundation, he had sold his comfortable house and moved into a rented abode, professing himself mentally more at ease with his choice. He is also described as “always smiling.”
What fuels the Beautiful Foundation’s engine is the ideal that life can be beautiful, if people not only know how to give, but how easy it is to give. Surely 1% of one’s income – Park’s suggested amount of donation – is not such a huge sacrifice to help the poor. The level of philanthropy in a country, it is explained, is an important standard for measuring the level of its culture. The act of giving should not be a forced duty but derives from a developed civic consciousness and social atmosphere possible only in a culturally advanced country.
The Beautiful Foundation, as propounded by Park, and began on a donation of KW 50,000,000 from Kim Goon Ja, who suffered as a comfort woman during the Japanese occupation of Korea, was to develop this culture of philanthropy, hitherto neglected in his country. Public causes, he maintained, should be served by continuous and sustainable support from a public ingrained with the habit of giving, and not sporadically or spontaneously by a few affluent individuals, corporations or groups. Thus, the Beautiful Foundation provides various methods in which ordinary citizens can participate, the revenues being operated as a public fund, spent in the interest of the public.
There have been therefore such campaigns as “The Most Beautiful Way of Spending Money”, “Sharing 1% of Inheritance”, “The Beautiful 1% Sharing Campaign”, “Making-A-Better-World-of-Sharing Online”, “Dining Table for Giving”, “Making-A-Warmer-World-To-Live”, and the first corporate social contribution program.
Park’s Beautiful Foundation has also opened more than 20 “Beautiful Stores” nationwide over the past three years, where the low-earning public can buy used items donated by people sharing 1% of their incomes. It is calculated that more than 26,000 people have so far made such donations, and more than seven billion Korean Won raised to help the underprivileged, within those three years of operation. It must be mentioned that the Beautiful Store, Park’s idea, met with initial opposition, but its success has since vindicated his vision.
Today, Park has left his previous roles of the past 31 years for a new one in his latest project: the Hope Institute, an enterprise that places Park on an even higher plane as visionary ever searching for ways to best serve the public interest. .As executive director of Hope Institute, he is termed a “social designer” by Korea-based writer Randy Colwell, one engaged in mapping a blueprint for his country’s future.
In a nutshell, Hope Institute is envisioned by Park as a civil society-based think tank which will function as a research institute – independent from political, and business interests; alternative (people-based, eco-friendly and embracing the founding people’s culture of living); participatory (gathering people’s ideas; and working with them); practical, integrative and locally oriented.
It is Park’s most ambitious project so far, perhaps the culmination of all his dreams and visions of transforming Korean society on a larger-than-ever scale. A certified academic with a Diploma in International Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Research Fellow, Human Rights Program, School of Law, Harvard University, he has a string of awards and honors from a grateful country, including “Award for Women’s Movement” from the Korean Women’s Association United in 1998, “Most Influential National Leader for the 21st Century” from The Weekly Sisa Journal and “The 1999 Distinguished Citizens of Korean Civil Society” from The Citizen Times, both in 1999, and the “50 Stars of Asia” from Business Weeks(Asia) in 2000.
Through it all, he remains typically humble and ever-optimistic in the face of the ongoing travails and intransigencies facing modern Korea today – divided as it is by ever-increasing complications, not the least being the nuclear threat posed by their unreconciled brothers in the north. “Hope does not fall from the sky, “ he declares. “We create hope ourselves.” Certainly, as the designer of projects that are engines of hope in a society struggling to find its place in the sun , Park Won Soon has not only fulfilled his father’s dream of a better life for himself – he is ensuring the same for his countrymen, setting as well a beautiful and hopeful example for others to follow.