A portrait of neglectThe wind still had a chill on the spring day I toured a trail of industrial sites across Hwaseong, Gyeonggi. Forklifts were busy on the site of the former forest. Stray dogs kept the workers company. I had to remind myself that I was on my way to a state of the art automobile research and development center, not a trip back in time to the early days of industrialization in the 1970s.
The car moved at a snail’s pace. The dusty two-lane road was packed with people driving to work. After 40 minutes of tedium, we arrived at a research institute that employs over 10,000 engineers. I was relieved by the sight of a high-tech building and upscale environment. But my spirits fell as I progressed further past industrial sites in Hwaseong, Balan, and Hyangnam.
I could not find any trace of the grandiose plans announced by a government determined to make the economy prosper through the creation of a so-called creative economy. How often we have heard that slogan in the past few years. Nor did I see any sign of the government’s frequent pledges to solve the nation’s youth unemployment problem. The stretches of excavated land added up to one big wasteland. The abandoned buildings, rubble and discarded furniture formed an ugly sight along the road. A few decent diners were spotted at crossroads, but they could hardly appeal to young people. Everything else was covered in dust or rust.
The industrial belt is a cluster of high-tech factories for automotive parts, machinery design, electronics, semiconductor parts, displays and chemicals. They employ the best engineers and scientists, the frontline troops in our war to find a breakthrough for an ever more stagnant Korea Inc. The next generation transmission R&D center of Hyundai Motor and semiconductor fabrication site of Samsung Electronics in Giheung, Gyeonggi are the manufacturing base for more than 100 trillion won ($86.2 billion) in output, or about 10 percent of Korea’s gross domestic product. I found myself fuming with anger at the sight of them being left entirely alone in their battle to find a future, without any help from the government or the rest of the country.
A young worker at the transmission center jokingly said that his wife is doubtful about where he actually works since he comes home from work with muddy shoes. The parking lot of the state of the art R&D center is a field that turns muddy when it rains. The company could not complete the necessary infrastructure because of notoriously rigid regulations on industrial sites around the capital. The young, talented people brought down here to come up with creative ideas and innovations have no place to take a stroll or have coffee during their breaks. The place that has been the industrial home of top Korean manufacturers for the last 18 years does not look anything like a hotbed of new innovations and technology. I cannot imagine what it can produce when I compare it to the spectacular scene at Google headquarters in San Francisco, which I visited a few years back.
The election season brims with hollow promises about what politicians can and will do to improve the economy and the lives of the people. They are full of flowery promises empty of any knowledge of what goes on in industrial fields, not to mention in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Most of the politicians vanish as soon as the election is over. The industrial belts in Pohang, Ulsan, Changwon, Wonju, and Mokpo in southern part of the country are better off. So why have the industrial sites of Gyeonggi Province — home to 10 million people — been so neglected by the central and local governments?
Administrative focus and spending primarily revolves around pork-barrel projects. An official from the Gyeonggi provincial administration in charge of industrial sites said taking care of the corporate infrastructure was beyond his jurisdiction. The person responsible for road works around the area said the administration had to defer road repair work to December last year and canceled the plan altogether due to a lack of funds.
Maintenance of the area was pushed back. Instead, billions of dollars were funneled into the four-rivers restoration project, a pork-barrel extravaganza of the previous administration. Spending was also concentrated on a high-tech cluster in Pangyo near the capital, to back up the current government’s slogan about a creative economy.
A candidate running in this area said the social infrastructure in the region has already been well established and he will instead work towards making lives easier for the old and young. I doubt he would have said that if he took a really hard look at the neglected land he wants to represent. His rosy portrayal of the future came in stark contrast to reality on the ground.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Apr. 5, Page 31
*The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.