[VIEWPOINT]KTX causes rural areas to be sucked dryA joke currently popular among doctors in Busan goes, “Let’s collect money to build a monument for Buddhist nun Ji-yul’s charitable deeds.” Due to the good nun’s hunger strike, which succeeded in delaying the construction of a tunnel for a high-speed rail link through Mount Cheonseong, it was not just the endangered salamanders that were saved, but also the doctors in Busan. Due to the KTX, general hospitals in Daejeon to as far as Daegu are having a hard time. Patients from those parts tend to go to Seoul for treatment if their illness seems serious. Busan is better off for now than those other cities. But doctors there are worried that if the KTX railway between Daegu and Busan is built, they will end up in the same situation.
Milyang city in South Gyeongsang province, with the Nakdong River linking it between Daegu and Busan, is a rich farming area. One drawback for residents was their poor access to transportation. But now the KTX train stops at Milyang 13 times each day. And last year, the Busan to Daegu highway was completed. Have their lives improved? Milyang city officials shake their heads. “Unlike our expectations, the reality is very disappointing.” The population of Milyang has shrunk to 112,000. Recently, Milyang Hospital closed. Since it only takes about 20 minutes to get to Busan or Daegu, residents no longer celebrate their birthdays with parties in their hometown. While some have enjoyed great benefits from their KTX connection, some feel left out. With the sudden influx of tourists elsewhere there are rumors that “Pyochungsa and Eoleumgol are the only places that enjoyed profit.”
With the opening of the KTX, the travel time between these areas and the Seoul metropolitan area has been shortened. The economic distance has been reduced and so has the emotional distance. However, it is hard to find any large scale dispersal of the metropolitan area or equal development of the regional areas. Rather, the “straw effect,” where the local regions shrink due to the powerful absorptive force of the metropolitan region, is predominant. In various fields such as hospitals, shopping and culture, metropolitan concentration is taking place. Due to the KTX, President Roh Moo-hyun’s local equalization policy will be watered down.
Already, some of the workers in local areas go home to Seoul during the weekend, commuting between two houses, giving rise to the new term, geumgwi weolrae, meaning “returning home on Friday and going back on Monday.”
Japan experienced the same “straw effect.” Merchants in Osaka had a steadfast principle: “protect their noren under any circumstances.” Noren is a cloth sign that merchants hang in front of their shops. The tradition of noren is to gain a following in one place for several generations. They seldom move their shops. However, with the introduction of the shinkansen, the bullet train, the situation changed. The population of Osaka decreased and its economy began shrinking. Nagoya was an exception, since it had the monster Toyota Motors. Nagoya exemplifies a city that has benefited from the shinkansen, along with an increase in its population.
Although there were numerous public promises for the past 20 years since before the term of President Roh Tae-woo, it is hard to find a single similar success story. Large cities such as Ulsan, Pohang, Changwon, Gumi and Gwangyang were established under the Park Chung-Hee government’s plan to build up the heavy chemical industry. The problem was that the developing cities sucked the life out of the Yeongnam region as they maintained continuous growth. The success story of Nagoya is the same. The key to reviving local areas then is not the KTX or the shinkansen but good companies, jobs, education and social-cultural environments.
Recently, the government confirmed its 10 trillion won-Honam high-speed railway plan, scheduled to be completed by 2017. President Roh pushed this plan with determination, saying, “We cannot just calculate the economic feasibility.” We can not stop him either. However, the “straw effect” is a problem. This gift, which smacks of political motives, could be just a sugar-coated pill; people just suck on the sugar, not realizing it has bitter contents.
Development plans to create a company city or “innovative city” are at a standstill. The companies have not moved into the city while real estate prices have risen. The government abolished the equity investment ceiling system and allowed pension, endowment and fund investments, but is still having a hard time finding a company to invest in the city. In this situation, if we just expand the KTX and build more highways, we would only create more straw effects.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho