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Jeju Special Self-Governing Province? Jeju, South Korea

25 October 2008 No Comment

Jeju Location

Effective July 1, 2006, Jeju was designated by the central government as a special self-governing province. Since this time, the island has had 2 years to utilize its special status and implement its corresponding legislative mandate. Ostensibly, the purpose was to individuate Jeju as an autonomous provincial entity, but what was the impetus for this in the first place?

Jeju-do accounts for roughly 1% of the Korean population, but is, by all accounts, a geographically and culturally distinct part of the Korean peninsula. Beginning in the late 60s and early 70s, the notion of Jeju as a free trade entity was nothing more than a whisper. Fast forward into the future, and, by the 90s, Jeju was struggling in its quest to achieve market differentiation over other East Asian destinations. Sure, the countryside was beautiful. But, who was going to visit when East Asia was just around the corner and readily accessible via a shoe-string budget? The solution, therefore, was to transform Jeju into an autonomous free trade economic market which enabled liquidity of foreign investment. (Note: Autonomy in this capacity excludes national defence, diplomacy and legal justice.) Subsequent to this strategy are the unmistakable tax incentives and a commercial vehicle unencumbered by regulatory bureaucracy. The bottom line was to make it commercially inviting for the international big business circuit. In order to achieve this, the province required a self-governing status which was the instrument to eliminate barriers of entry.

Jeju as a pilot program

Consequently, the Jeju government lobbied Seoul for the right to have an efficient legislative and autonomous decision making status thus resulting in the eventual creation of the Special Self-Governing province. Since this time, other provinces and Seoul have been eagerly regarding Jeju as a control group of sorts. It is an unofficial pilot program which could potentially influence the future political sphere of Korea. But, to be successful or not to be successful… that is the question.

There is a significant emphasis on the transformation of the commercial culture, but what of the culture itself? Is it at risk of being indirectly influenced by the influx of foreigners that are part and parcel to the package of international investment? At present, Jeju is open (requiring no visa) to more than 180 countries, but there are only direct flights to and from a handful of these countries. This figure will no doubt rise in the years to follow. More investors ultimately mean more changes, but are more changes for the better? Only 20 years ago, the Jeju orange, the staple crop of the island, was facilitated by the village community. Now, agricultural production is controlled by the individual, which, though appealing to some, is not consistent with the collective nature of the indigenous farming culture. From a subsistence stand point, that has evident implications for agricultural sustainability. Furthermore, how will this change manifest in lieu of Jeju’s many ecological resources? Will their protected status be compromised by the deregulation of the commercial sector, and is the natural capital at risk of exploitation?

Growing Frustration Among the Jeju Population

At present, there is a growing sentiment of frustration amongst the Jeju population. The core of this is rooted in the government’s inability to communicate forthcoming information about the provincial development plans. Some people in the province are feeling neglected because they are neither participating in the procedure nor the planning of the development. In addition, others simply don’t agree with the strategies being advanced. This was made evident by a July 28, 2008 survey conducted by Research and Research which queried a market demographic of 11,000 locals about the proposed healthcare privatization plan. A decisive 39.9% voted against the motion, resulting in the abandonment of the project because it failed to achieve a majority approval. There was a dream that was the Free International City, but is it still ubiquitously allocated? I believe that for the most part it is, but the lack of communal input in the procedure of the development itself is directly generating varying degrees of domestic resentment. Locals need to feel as if they are an integral part of the process and not simply coexisting variables. Nevertheless, communication is a two way process, so the diligence rests on both the government and the people to establish effective channels.

Balancing Investment

It is important to appreciate that investment alone does not mandate success. If the province overextends itself financially, then there is ample opportunity for the economy to contract; having said that, I recognize that the equation goes both ways. At this point in the game, it is far too early to forecast the fiscal prospects of the Free International City, but I can say that the government has undertaken an ambitious project, and their endeavor will serve as either a monumental success or colossal failure. When the monetary stakes are this high, there is no medium or monkey in the middle so to speak. Notwithstanding the fact that the government has done it’s best to mitigate them, there are no doubt a series of trials in the pursuit of actualizing special self-governing status. What was is not what is or what is yet to come, but time will ultimately tell if the proceedings prove successful. Historically, Jeju Island has always been a place of agony; a famous poet has said that he could not come here without tears. Here is an opportunity to turn what has historically been a barren island into an economic promised land. I, for one, will be watching in grave anticipation.

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