By Lefteris Adilinis
It took me some time to process what our guide was saying about Incheon Free Economic Zone, one of the most fascinating projects I have ever come across.
South Koreans, a people who combine vision and an admirable drive to succeed with unparalleled efficiency, have managed to surpass themselves. In about 14 years they built a Free Economic Zone, a city with huge skyscrapers but also with schools, universities, hospitals, parks and cultural centres.
The area can be found just about 64km south of Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea, as the south part of the troubled Far Eastern peninsula is officially named.
A group of journalists from around the world were invited to South Korea over April 2-8 to attend a conference on peace-keeping and world peace in Seoul and other large cities. We did discuss Korea’s division and the constant threat to its southern part by the heavily-militarised north.
The fear that the war of the 1950s could be repeated, possibly with nuclear weapons this time, is always in the mind of Koreans. Concern is constant, but people do not allow such considerations to slow them down. To prevent them from constantly developing and improving their country, in vital sectors such as technology, business, tourism and culture.
High efficiency, though, comes at a price. South Koreans are very hardworking, but also very intense. My feeling, from the week I spent there, is that they find it difficult to open up on a personal level. Nevertheless, their achievements are impressive.
In about half a century, after the war, South Koreans have managed to literally rebuild their country. Big cities like the capital Seoul, Suwon (the home of Samsung) and Busan, the impressive trade, tourism and culture centre, opposite Japan in the south-east, are constructed with Western architecture and style. The American influence is noticeable.
After all, the US stations more than 30,000 troops in South Korea. The difference here is that Western style is beautifully combined with an Asian drive to succeed and be reckoned with. Corruption, as everywhere else, is very much in the picture. But, at least, South Korea’s justice system works. It is one the very few countries in the world where the President was jailed recently for taking bribes.
South Korea is a world leader in technology and heavy industry such as shipbuilding and car making. Companies such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai and KIA have been developed into multinational forces with a global reach. But I think that one of the most striking examples of South Korean ability is the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ).
IFEZ is located in Incheon, an area that, among other things, incorporates Seoul international airport. It consists of three regions Songdo, Cheongna and the island of Yeongiong. The goal was to transform these areas of about 210 sq.Km into hubs for logistics, international business, leisure and tourism for the Northeast Asian region. Three types of incentives were given to attract domestic and foreign companies to locate there: Significant tax reduction, state support and subsidies.
The first discussions on building IFEZ were held in 1994, but it was officially designated by the South Korean government in 2003. The project’s completion had been set in 2020. Yet, when we visited the area, on April 7, we saw a thriving place, ready and operational.
We spent our time in IFEZ mostly taking in the new Songdo City. Built on reclaimed land, the area has been designed to become a centre of diverse international businesses, a hub for global trade, knowledge-based technologies and eco-friendly urban living. Seen from the 33rd floor of IFEZ information centre, Songdo covers 53 sq.km and its master plan boasts the 68-storey Northeast Asia Trade Tower, Korea’s tallest building and advanced corporate centres.
The visitor could also see the architecturally stunning SongdoConvensia, Incheon’s primary convention centre and the Incheon Arts Centre, a cultural complex housing a concert hall, opera house, a museum of contemporary art and a library. The area also has a 2.4 sq.km open space, including a huge Central Park, public and private schools, hospitals, extensive residency facilities and even a golf club.
Winter Olympics 2018
Hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics is the next challenge for South Korea. Wherever you go in the country you can’t escape a mention, or an ad, promoting the global sporting event. It is scheduled to take place over February 9-25, 2018, mainly in Pyeongchang, a mountain area and a resort in the making.
Winter sports do not interest me that much and I wouldn’t include them in this article. But I decided to mention the Olympics when I realised that 10 months before the first event is set to begin, all venues are ready to welcome the athletes. In fact, practice events are already taking place to test the functionality of the stadiums, as well as the state-of-the-art main operational centre.
When the lights of the closing ceremony go out, Pyeongchang will be a major winter holiday resort, equipped with luxury hotels, venues to host conferences and other sporting events. The area will be linked to Seoul’s international airport with a modern motorway and a high-tech train, travelling at more than 300km per hour.
Korea is the last bastion of the Cold War and, together with Cyprus, one of only two divided countries in the world. But that is the only similarity between them. Cyprus is dominated by its political problem, and only very recently did the RoC manage to devise proper plans for its future, irrespective of the ongoing processes to reach a political settlement.
On the contrary, South Korea, without forgetting the constant threat from the north, has managed to move forward and establish itself as an influential economy with global reach.