x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

South Korea's progress is taking a social turn

The country's policy of building expressways and industrial parks has evolved to encompass environmental improvements along with a better quality of life.

Cheonggyecheon, a small stream that flows through Seoul, was restored as South Koreans began to demand a cleaner living environment. Paul Souders / The Image Bank / Getty Images
Cheonggyecheon, a small stream that flows through Seoul, was restored as South Koreans began to demand a cleaner living environment. Paul Souders / The Image Bank / Getty Images

In 1962, during an official visit to West Germany, the South Korean president Park Chung-hee stopped his car numerous times on the autobahn, kneeling to touch pavements, examining interchanges and investigating guardrails. His invaluable experience led to the construction of the Seoul-Busan Expressway from the capital to the nation's largest port - a 430km expressway completed at only a tenth of the budget that developed countries normally needed.

South Korea is a mountainous country little bigger than the UAE, but with a much larger population of 50 million. As exemplified by the Seoul-Busan Expressway, the efficient use of territory has always been at the centre of the government's policy on constructing industrial clusters and connecting them through expressways and railways. That policy has evolved over the past half-century, and continues to evolve.

With the new expressway open in 1970, major regional industrial complexes and ports were connected, creating a favourable condition in South Korea to pursue its trademark export-oriented development policy. This represented a typical case of "choice and focus," showing how the South Korean government used limited financial resources for the most effective territorial development.

It should be noted that South Korea's territorial policy over the past 60 years has been implemented in tandem with its economic and social policies. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, industrial development was concentrated in regional "growth centres" with the aim of making the most of limited resources for the country's rapid economic growth.

For instance, in the 1960s, the country's first export industrial park was launched in Seoul. The consequent sharp rise in the number of manufacturing operations in Seoul accelerated the rural population's migration to the capital from 10 per cent of the total population in the 1960s to 18 per cent in the 1970s. In the 1970s, the government built coastal industrial complexes in the south-east of the country under the heavy and chemical industry drive, which was completed by the Chun Doo-hwan administration (1980-1988). In 1988, when the country hosted the Olympic Games, Roh Tae-woo became president by direct election, ushering in a period of democratisation.

In the 1990s, when civic organisations began to raise their voices on various social issues, the country adopted a policy of full-fledged local autonomy, paving the way for decentralisation and balanced economic development across regions. The Kim Young-sam (1993-1998) and Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) administrations followed suit to focus their efforts on improving the regional distribution of infrastructure projects and adopted a market-oriented approach through the deregulation of land use. This was a stark departure from the previous territorial policy that was characterised by a myriad of regulations.

In the 2000s, the drive to promote balanced national development gained further momentum to close regional development gaps. As society matured and democratised, there was growing interest and demand for environmental improvements and a better quality of life. The government initiated a re-examination of the projects that had been designed on the basis of efficiency during the years of rapid development.

A recent case in point was the restoration of Cheonggyecheon, a small but vital stream that flows through the centre of Seoul. In the 1960s, the stream was paved and covered to be used as a site for modern roads and shops. However, as society began to demand a cleaner and more comfortable living environment rather than high economic growth, the Cheonggyecheon restoration project was formulated in 2003. Such a major project initiation required balancing of interests and management of conflicts among numerous stakeholders. Lee Myung-bak, then Seoul mayor and now South Korean president, prepared a detailed preparation plan, and showed strong leadership in going ahead with the project through numerous meetings and intensive persuasion of main stakeholders.

Park Kyung-ree, a renowned novelist who was regarded as the mother of the civic movement at that time, was in the forefront of supporting the project, saying: "Without the patience to endure a short period of inconvenience, our future will be ruined. We must endure it with the resolve of contributing to our descendants." Her full support helped persuade those who had before protested against the restoration.

Following the successful restoration, an extensive reform of the Seoul bus system needed to be carried out to address the traffic congestion aggravated by the restoration project. This was another case of a successful territorial project, made possible through the leadership's strong will, successful interest and conflict resolution among stakeholders, and well-coordinated public-private partnership. Through the complete reform of the bus system, which was once complicated and inefficient, public transportation has become much more convenient, contributing to public welfare.

In South Korea, an extensive and well-connected web of industrial complexes, innovations clusters, free trade areas, and free economic zones is an integral part of the government's continuous efforts to further develop regional economies, including the Fourth National Comprehensive Territorial Plan (2006-2020) that envisions a self-standing regional development base, a network-type infrastructure, a humane settlement atmosphere, and a decentralised territorial planning and implementation system. As South Korea's economic development reaches a stage of maturity, its territorial policy has evolved accordingly, embracing the new and diverse voices of the citizens.

Hyun Oh-seok is president of the Korea Development Institute