Korean Puts US Twist on a Land Apart
An activist, American-educated governor works to turn his neglected province into an economic powerhouse
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The quest has sent him around the world: to Osaka, Japan, to set up a center promoting agricultural products from Cholla; to Kaliningrad, Russia, to look for economic cooperation; and to the US to make a pitch to investors.Skip to next paragraph
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Governing: American style
At home, You holds an annual "town meeting" in each of North Cholla's 18 counties. The governor imported the tradition from the US, aiming to make sure he's addressing the needs of his people. Questions are recorded and follow-up postcards are sent to citizens informing them of what action has been taken. Not surprisingly, he's been popular.
But getting development money is hard if one is underrepresented in South Korea's powerful central government. According to You, South Korea's first civilian president, Kim Young Sam, a native of Kyongsang, isn't doing much better than his predecessors to heal regional divides. "If one examines major appointments by Kim Young Sam," You says, key seats are filled by members of the president's high school alma mater.
The social networking made during high school is crucial in South Korea. Well over 100 Cabinet ministers have come from former President Park's high school in Pusan. Since 1961, You's high school in North Cholla, has produced only one Cabinet minister.
You says he must make twice as many visits to central ministries as other provincial governors to get funds in the central government budget allocated to his province. But he acknowledges that Seoul has initiated many of the projects he is pushing. But they materialize slowly - a second train line down the west coast has yet to be completed after decades of work, according to You.
While he must seek the central government's cooperation for building infrastructure, he isn't waiting for local investments alone to fill North Cholla's industrial zones.
Tammi Overby, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, says a number of member companies are considering investing in North Cholla. "Of all the provinces [we've dealt with] he and his staff seem to be the most helpful in dealing with the American business community," she says.
You, who took office last year, won't have a hard time selling North Cholla to investors. Now that the area around Kyongsang-Taegu and the area around Seoul are saturated with industry, companies wishing to set up factories in South Korea have little choice but to build them on the west coast. Also, wages in Cholla are 5 to 10 percent lower than in the rest of the country. With the provincial government rolling out the red carpet, and the huge China market just across the Yellow Sea, it isn't a bad deal.
Things are looking up
Daewoo, a South Korean conglomerate, recently set up an auto factory in North Cholla. One company official says "It is very cost- effective and promising" and adds that it is in line with the central government's recent policy of fixing the unbalanced national development - one of President Kim Young Sam's election promises.
Things were looking up even before the activist governor came into office: Exports have tripled in the last four years, while imports increased 60 percent. Hyundai also has invested in plants, and the population of North Cholla, which had been shrinking since 1960, grew in 1995. Partly on account of its underdevelopment, the province now is the most rapidly developing area of the country.
Governor You may not be the only one frustrated by Seoul, which has only recently initiated local autonomy laws to promote democracy and economic development. Observers say local governance has a long way to go.
Just 10 percent of tax revenue is in the hands of local governments. "It's not just Governor You," says Yim Yong Soon, a professor of political science at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. "Every one of these governors has to get money."
North Cholla cannot provide special tax breaks or incentives compared with other provinces because any such incentives are strictly limited by the central government. But North Cholla officials say they are devoted to "getting things done" and offer "low-priced, quality land, and well-organized administrative support."