Korean Puts US Twist on a Land Apart
An activist, American-educated governor works to turn his neglected province into an economic powerhouse
CHONJU, SOUTH KOREA
When You Jeong-keun gave up his American citizenship and returned to South Korea after 24 years away from his homeland, he had grand plans for his home province, North Cholla.Skip to next paragraph
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He wanted to right decades of economic discrimination and turn the province - a backward and underdeveloped region of 2 million people - into a thriving economic powerhouse. To start, Mr. You got himself elected governor.
From his new post, Governor You is pushing North Cholla to catch up with other areas favored by past rulers of South Korea, whose policies of uneven development spawned political parties that were defined by geography rather than ideology. Up against a democratic central government that still conducts its business in the same way, You is luring international investment to his province in the hopes of developing it.
His moment of inspiration came in high school after hearing the story of Alfred Marshall. The former British ethics professor, strolling through a London slum, decided that the practical discipline of economics, not ethics, was the way to help people.
South Korea was still recovering from the Korean War when You heard Marshall's story in 1960. At that time South Korea had a per capita annual income of $82, less than India's. You followed in Marshall's footsteps and studied economics, earning a doctorate in economics from the State University of New York in Binghamton. He stayed in America to teach at Rutgers University in New Jersey and was an adviser to three of the state's governors. Starting in 1984, he began spending a third of his year in South Korea, and a decade later, returned there permanently.
And although it now seems that South Korea doesn't need his skills anymore (per capita income now exceeds $10,000) his province still lags behind.
As the country developed in the years following the Korean War, the military rulers presiding over South Korea's economic miracle poured money into their hometown regions - Kyongsang and Taegu in the southeast - while North Cholla, home to the opposition pro-democracy movement, languished.
While some say the division of the country can be traced hundreds of years back to when the peninsula was three separate kingdoms, the roots of today's regionalism go back only a few decades.
In 1963, two years after his coup, Gen. Park Chung Hee won a free election by only 150,000 votes nationally, but took North Cholla Province by 300,000 votes. When he nearly lost a rigged election in 1971 to Kim Dae Jung of South Cholla Province, Mr. Park became worried about his grip on power and appealed to the people of his home region for their support in exchange for his. It was then, observers say, that he began ignoring the people of Cholla, who had supported him a decade earlier.
Regionalism festered, and was even cultivated by the ruling party. "It was a case of divide and conquer," says You in an interview, adding, "We used to be one of the wealthier provinces before industrialization."
Economic discrimination became cultural as well. Although things are slowly changing, Chollans complain of hiring discrimination by non-Cholla-based companies. Some South Koreans don't want to marry people from Cholla. On TV, devious and socially low characters speak with a Cholla accent.
After government troops massacred hundreds in a 1980 pro-democracy demonstration in Kwangju, South Cholla, the distrust between Chollans and the rest of the country intensified.
The rumor, says Lew Seok-Choon, was "that [the troops] were Kyongsang people, and they came to Kwangju to kill Cholla people." Opposition leader Kim Dae Jung "became a symbol of the oppressed," says Professor Lew, who teaches sociology at Yonsei University in Seoul.
All this seems remarkable in a country slightly larger than the size of Indiana, known for its nationalism and homogeneity.
"When I went to the US in 1970, I never realized [that coming from Cholla] was such a disadvantage," You says. Undaunted, Governor You jokingly tells his American friends that he is "well prepared for the task [of being governor] because I spent 21 years in New Jersey - a state that has an identity problem."
As a bowing assistant follows him with a portable phone, he confidently talks about industrial zones and infrastructure projects he hopes to see built.