As South Korea Votes, Mall Bid Highlights Regional Split | Political news

Seoul, South Korea – When Yoon Seok-yeol visited the southwestern city of Gwangju as he campaigned to be South Korea’s next president last month, the conservative frontrunner’s speech made headlines. newspapers for days.

In a country facing thorny issues such as a rock-bottom birth rate and a nuclear-armed neighbor in North Korea, Yoon struck a chord with a decidedly prosaic concern: business complexes.

“I see that the citizens of Gwangju aspire to have a shopping complex, where people can watch movies and buy basic goods, and which is also a cultural space,” said Yoon, a former chief prosecutor turned political neophyte. , in his speech.

“You can find such shopping complexes anywhere else. Go to Busan and see for yourself. Or Daejeon and Daegu… Why aren’t there any in Gwangju?

Many young people in Gwangju hailed the speech by Yoon, who is neck and neck with centre-left opponent Lee Jae-myung ahead of Wednesday’s vote, the preparation for which brought to light issues related to fairness such as soaring real estate prices and gender inequality.

Much of the rest of South Korea was surprised to learn that their country’s sixth-largest metropolis didn’t have a single shopping complex.

Among the seven major autonomous cities in South Korea, Gwangju is the only one without a large shopping complex or big-box retail stores.

Gwangju, a city of 1.5 million people 270 kilometers southwest of Seoul, has for decades been the stronghold of a left-wing political strain that views big business with suspicion. The city and surrounding region of Honam have voted overwhelmingly for a leftist candidate in every presidential election since the country was democratized in 1987.

In a recent column, Bae Hun-cheon, the leader of a campaign to establish a shopping complex in Gwangju, pointed to the ruling Democratic Party’s monopoly on local governance and unusually strong civic activism as the reasons for the move. the city’s unique aversion to large retailers.

South Korean presidential candidate Yoon Seok-yeol has pledged to build a major shopping complex in the liberal stronghold of Gwangju [File: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

Several attempts to establish a commercial complex in the city have been made over the past decade to no avail.

Most famously, in 2015 Shinsegae, South Korea’s largest retail giant, announced plans to build a shopping complex and hotel.

The retailer scrapped the plans after two years of administrative gridlock and protests from local merchant groups that later drew support from ruling party-affiliated incumbent Moon Jae-in and Lee Jae-myung.

Despite Gwangju’s association with the political left, many of the city’s residents seem ready to welcome big business into their homes.

In a poll by a local newspaper last July, 58% of respondents said the city should accommodate large shopping malls. Support was particularly strong among younger residents, with more than 70% of people aged 18-39 in favour.

Others criticized Yoon’s pledges for failing to offer credible solutions to the southwestern region’s underdevelopment.

“A responsible political party should provide solutions for quality jobs for the region, not create temporary jobs (with large shopping complexes),” the Gwangju branch of the minor leftist Justice Party said in a statement.

“How could they expect citizens to spend when there is no money because there are no jobs?

Lee, Yoon’s opponent, rejected the idea of ​​building a large shopping complex, promising instead to redevelop the city’s traditional markets.

The industrialization of South Korea

Cho Gwi-dong, the author of a book on the development of the Honam region, said the city’s de facto one-party rule can be attributed to South Korea’s industrialization history .

“During industrialization, Korean entrepreneurs based their business on their networks based on regionalism, school connections and kinship,” Cho told Al Jazeera. “The politicians, military and high officials who fed them were also part of these networks.”

During the era of military dictatorships that ruled between the 1960s and 1980s, most political and military leaders hailed from the southeastern region of Yeongnam, which includes the major cities of Daegu and Busan. Regional patronage among ruling elites has helped Yeongnam-based conglomerates like Samsung and LG flourish into world-famous brands.

“Isolated from industrialization, the people of Honam could not develop their own conglomerates, entrepreneurs and the social capital required for modern business activity,” Cho said.

Disconnected from the centers of power, the Honam region came to rely on left-wing political parties to compete with other regions for central government resources.

Cho said the recent debate over commercial complexes has shown that the traditional model of hyper-localized politics is faltering.

“Before, the local establishment had local politicians and consumers on their side when the capital tried to set foot in their city,” Cho said. “The problems that one-party politics cannot solve, including that of the business complex, are emerging as we see now.”

Lee Jae-myung
Lee Jae-myung’s Democratic Party and his ancestors have dominated South Korea’s Honam region since the country’s democratization [File: Kim Hong-ji/Reuters]

Recent polls also suggest a weakening of the country’s traditional regionalism ahead of the presidential polls.

While a conservative presidential candidate has never garnered more than 10% of Honam’s vote in a presidential election, Yoon, who represents the center-right People Power Party, garnered up to 30% support in some opinion polls.

“Enmity towards the conservative party has contributed to Honam’s outright support for the Democratic Party, but regional development has stalled,” Yu Chang-seon, an independent political commentator in Seoul, told Al Jazeera.

“Yoon’s involvement in shopping complexes has led to a wider debate over whether or not the ruling party’s dominance in the region has been beneficial. It is therefore very interesting to know how many votes the conservative candidate can collect in Honam. »

The unraveling regionalism comes even as the gaps between the capital region and the rest of the country are widening. Greater Seoul’s share of gross national income rose to 55.6 percent in 2019 from 51.7 percent in 2000, according to the Korea Institute for Human Settlements Research, a government-funded think tank. State.

The population is also increasingly concentrated around the capital. For the first time in history, the population of the greater Seoul area in 2019 accounted for more than half of the country’s estimated 52 million people.

Cho said local politics should offer better solutions for regional development than haggling over the central budget, which is outdated in the modern age.

“Looking carefully at Honam’s problems and seeking solutions will ultimately help the nation overcome the problems of other provinces as well,” Cho said.

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Peggy P. Gilmore