The World Smart Sustainable Cities Organisation (WeGO) in Seoul plans to help North Korea build smart cities, its Secretary General has exclusively revealed to GovInsider.

“We would like to work together with North Korean cities”, said Lee Kyong-yul. “In case they are not well-developed, we would like to help them to be smart”, he added.

WeGO was set up by the Seoul Metropolitan Government as an international organisation to help city governments across the world use technology. The Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, is its current President. The WeGO secretariat receives 40-50% of its operating budget from the Seoul city government.

Following three rounds of peace talks with South Korea this year, North Korea is “opening up quite fast”, Lee said. He is exploring ways to establish a partnership with North Korea. “I will go there soon,” he said. This visit would have to take place within a year, as Lee plans to launch a smart city network with North Korea in September 2019.

The network would start with seven cities: Seoul, Pyongyang, Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Washington DC, and Singapore. “I will call the whole event ‘The Tale of Seven Smart Cities’,” Lee said.

This partnership would be launched at a summit in September 2019, he added, setting up a forum for mayors from the seven cities to “discuss ways and means to cooperate, collaborate”. This would be an “initial step” towards setting up a “North East Asian Smart City network”. It would mimic the ASEAN Smart City Network, a platform setup this year for 26 cities in Southeast Asia to learn from each others’ plans to use technology.

Mayor Park of Seoul “is aware of the Tales programme”, a spokesperson for WeGO added.

Infrastructure and skills support

In North Korea, tech infrastructure could be an area of collaboration, Lee believes. “Pyongyang and Wonsan cities in North Korea look very well organised as far as the physical infrastructure is concerned. But I don’t know the situation of IT connectivity,” he said. “My guess is it is not yet satisfactory”.

Another area of collaboration will be helping North Korean cities develop skills and train officials. “WeGO provides capacity building, training programmes and feasibility studies”, he added.

During a trip to Singapore last week, Lee met with Chosun Exchange – a Singapore-based company that takes foreign experts to North Korea to train locals in areas such as design thinking and entrepreneurship, and also sponsors North Koreans to be trained overseas. “One avenue of WeGO working with NK would be with Chosun Exchange,” the WeGo spokesperson said.

Seoul’s Mayor Park provided the initial introduction for WeGO with Chosun Exchange: “We got to know them as President Park (Mayor of Seoul) reached out to them during the World Cities Summit [held in July in Singapore] to thank them for their hard work regarding North Koreans,” the spokesperson said.

Other avenues of working with North Korea would be through South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Unification and North Korean embassies, the spokesperson added. However, the North Korean Government has not yet been briefed on this partnership offer from WeGO.

Part of the peace process

Working with North Korea to build smart cities would contribute to the peninsula’s peace process, believes Lee – a career diplomat, with 33 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in international cooperation roles at other ministries. “It’s good not only for our two Koreas, but also for the entire Northeast Asian region. There have been conflicts and diatribes and bigotries and everything for the last 70 years”.

“If we say, ‘we would like to have a six party talk for denuclearisation or human rights in North Korea – something like that – it would be kind of allergic to that. But if I say ‘let’s build smart city for the happiness of the all the citizens’, I don’t think it’s allergic to that.”

Invitation to Singapore

Singapore could be a crucial member of future partnerships with North Korea, he believes. “Singapore has quite a unique relationship with North Korea. North Korea, I think, has very high respect in Singapore”, he said. “That’s why the US-NK summit took place in Singapore.”

Lee visited Singapore last week to convince the city-state to join WeGO, which has 142 cities and local governments as members from across the world. “My major aim was to have Singapore to join WeGO”. In the future, “Singapore can become the president city, and the Mayor of the presiding city can nominate the Secretary General”, he added.

“Our long-term vision is to become the UN for smart cities. That’s my vision,” said Lee, who was appointed as Secretary General in July. “We are envisioning a smart planet for all humanity without any single alienation or discrimination,” Lee said. “And WeGO, or Korea or Singapore cannot do it alone.”

WeGO aims to grow to 1,000 member cities and 500 corporate members in a couple of years, he added.

Image by Marcelo Druck, travelmag.comCC BY-NC-ND 2.0