We spoke to Park Cha Hoon, President of the Council of Korean Cooperatives, to find out how the country’s cooperative sector is preparing for next year’s World Cooperative Congress. Due to take place on 1-3 December in Seoul, the Republic of Korea, the Congress will bring together cooperators from all over the world to discuss why the cooperative identity is needed now more than ever.

Why do you think it’s important for the cooperative movement to come together and discuss the cooperative identity?

Park Cha Hoon: The cooperative identity is a combination of the common spirit and principles that make cooperatives distinct from other types of enterprises.  The Congress in Seoul will bring cooperatives from all over the world to deepen our identity and show everyone that cooperatives are core actors of a sustainable society that effectively connects various sectors of the economy and the environment. In addition, with COVID-19 widening social inequities, the Congress will be a perfect opportunity for participants to share experiences and knowledge to build a stronger and more equitable global cooperative network.

What does the cooperative identity mean to you?

Park Cha Hoon: For me, the ‘Cooperative Identity’ is a compass that should be followed to realise the values ​​of cooperatives. I grew up at a time of unprecedented reconstruction after the Korean War, and also the IMF crisis. Each time, Korean cooperatives have played an important role promoting the economic activities of its members, protecting the socially underprivileged, which then helped balance the development of local communities and improve the social status of local residents. This was possible because the cooperative movement put self-help, equality, solidarity and cooperation first.

How have cooperatives in the Republic of Korea used their cooperative identity to respond to the COVID-19 crisis?

Park Cha Hoon: COVID-19 is still an ongoing crisis, but some of the cooperatives in Korea have experienced an increase in sales or in their assets. These cooperatives experienced economic growth through sharing and cooperation even before the pandemic. In a situation where people meeting people became risky, these cooperatives became more trustworthy and  could serve communities with minimal  risk. Korean cooperatives have responded to this crisis by embedding the community spirit in their activities.

Why should attendees be excited about coming to Seoul?

Park Cha Hoon: We are excited because this is the first time that the Congress is held in Korea, and we are proud that attendees will get a glimpse of what the cooperative identity means to us.  In recent years, our country has witnessed a growth in new cooperatives and social enterprises, following the adoption of the Framework Act on Cooperatives. Old and new cooperatives played an important role to meet communities’ needs during the COVID-19 crisis, producing hand sanitisers, face masks and also collecting and distributing individual donations from cooperative employees to affected regions and members. Our members appreciated our response and as a result, cooperatives witnessed a 20% increase in sales – we believe that people’s trust in cooperatives increased as a result of the crisis. We expect the Congress to serve as a platform to let the world know that cooperatives are one of the key players leading a transition toward a more sustainable economy and making a positive contribution to the environment, particularly in the context of rebuilding post COVID-19.

What can attendees expect from being in a city like Seoul?

Park Cha Hoon: Seoul is a ‘city of harmony’ where the past, present, and future coexist. Here you can find modern skyscrapers, the Seoul Forest park and an old palace built centuries ago, all coexisting in harmony. We have a world-class IT infrastructure, beautiful mountains and idyllic rivers throughout the city, making Seoul modern and connected, yet is also a wonderful resting place for visitors. Despite being a huge metropolis with a population of about 10 million, it has also built a successful COVID-19 quarantine system. I believe Seoul’s vision of harmony will inspire the 2021 World Cooperative Congress attendees.

What is your message to cooperators?

Park Cha Hoon: We are confident and very hopeful that the COVID 19 pandemic will be contained and under control soon. Thanks to modern science, a vaccine will soon be available, which will enable us to meet each other in person. Let’s make the 2021 World Cooperative Congress an event for us to reflect how we met the challenges of the pandemic with solidarity and cooperation.