T hese days, the Chinese economy is emerging quickly, growing the Northeast Asian economic area across the board. The global economy is undergoing a paradigm shift from individual countries’ development to that of cities or their alliances. Considering the fact that the Korean economy is highly dependent on overseas markets, its response to this trend is critical. From a geographical perspective, Incheon City has the advantage of being located in the middle of the vast Northeast Asian economic bloc that includes China and North Korea.
Incheon City mayor Song Yeong-gil has the vision of making the city the economic capital of Northeast Asia. He is aiming to turn Incheon into the center of the pan-West Sea area, at which people and goods come together to boost future values. “We will host the headquarters of the Asian Community soon to be organized and give Incheon the moniker of Brussels in Asia,” said the mayor. Below is his interview with BusinessKorea regarding the blueprint and hurdles the city has to overcome to achieve this.
Q: According to recent data, the population in the IFEZ (Incheon Free Economic Zone) has topped 100,000. However, it has also been found that some 98.3% of these are Korean nationals, signaling that Incheon still has a long way to go to become a cosmopolitan city in the truest meaning of the word. Would you give your opinion about what makes a real international city?
A: I believe that any city challenging the status quo in pursuit of future value deserves to be called an international city. Incheon is the heart of Korea, palpitating with passion and enthusiasm. I will have economic, social and cultural conditions fostered in the region so that numerous creative endeavors can be made here. In a city of open opportunity and unlimited challenge, innovative entrepreneurs like the late Steve Jobs and grass-root democratic movements will find themselves home. My wish is that people remember me in the future as the mayor who set the stage for realizing this.
Incheon is the only Korean city housing both a world-class airport and port. The IFEZ is home to highly-educated, able workers and perfect residential conditions, making it the best location for high-tech industries. As a result, it will become the site of future generations dedicating their energy to innovation.
Q: Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University are in talks to establish a joint hospital in Incheon. Please express your stance on the establishment of foreign for-profit hospitals in the IFEZ. Some people claim the zone may open the way for profit-seeking medical institutions and healthcare privatization. What do you think about this?
A: Songdo International Hospital is a foreign medical institution limited to the IFEZ and has nothing to do with for-profit medical facilities. As it is an experimental establishment within a specific boundary, its impact on the national health insurance industry is restricted.
Medical and educational institutions are two of the essential facilities needed for overseas residents and the success of the IFEZ. Incheon also has advantageous conditions and infrastructure in terms of medical tourism. The airport and port guarantee a high level of accessibility and the facilities and personnel there are excellent. What we intend to do is take a test with foreign institutions, showing their will to make investments in Songdo. In fact, I myself am against the nationwide spread of profit-seeking hospitals since it could shake the domestic health insurance system to the ground.
I’m sorry to see medical tourists from the Middle East, Russia and China heading to destinations like Singapore, where the medical technological levels are lower than ours. Korea needs some plans to attract these, though Songdo International Hospital should not be the starting point for an overhaul of the entire medical insurance system.
What I can promise is that I will not push ahead with schemes involving for-profit hospitals. I will listen to the opinions of civic groups, the medical community and labor unions.
Q: The city’s preparations for the 2014 Asian Games are behind schedule. What is the progress and what will the international sports event do to expedite the realization of the city’s ambition, i.e., becoming the economic capital of Asia?
A: On June 28, we broke ground for the main stadium in the Seo-gu area and construction work is well underway. Tangible outcomes will be available from August 2013, I guess, when the stadium and additional facilities reveal their grand appearances.
I don’t deny that the city is in financial difficulties and it has seen no state subsidies for the main stadium. At the same time, I would like to appreciate the initiative on the part of civic organizations that kicked off a signature campaign to deliver 2.8 million Incheon citizens’ aspirations. Since October 5, a total of 1.13 million people have given their signatures. The initial target was 1 million.
The Asian Games is one of the world’s three biggest sports events along with soccer World Cup and Olympics. In an effort to make our urban infrastructure commensurate with such prestige, we are planning to develop the Five-island Area in the West Sea into a top-notch tourism complex with a gorgeous oceanscape, the utilization of which will continue after the Asian Games. I am sure the plan is viable as the region is highly accessible.
Furthermore, through the event, Incheon will have greater significance in regards to relations between the two Koreas. We are currently designing sports, cultural and other programs to deal with ethnic clashes and inter-state strife in Asia and promote peace, reconciliation and tolerance. Those efforts for the ideal of “One Asia” include special care for North Korea and nations in conflict areas. As I see it, doing so is not irrelevant to Incheon’s ambition to become a growth engine of Korea and the economic linchpin of Asia. Rather, this international political endeavor will prove to be an indispensable part of our aim.
Q: You have compared the future of Incheon to the present of Brussels, home of the EU headquarters. What is your prediction about Incheon’s role 10 years from now?
A: Incheon aims to become not just the business hub of Korea but the economic capital of Asia. To make this come true, we are striving to create an international city.
Let’s say the West Sea is a dining table. Then, Incheon and the Korean Peninsula, Gulf of Pohai, Liaotung Peninsula, Shantung Peninsula and the coastal cities located in Kyushu can be likened to family members sharing the table. What I mean by this is that all of them can be harmonious and prosper together.
Incheon, as part of Korea, will be the arbitrator, caring for minor countries and regions like Mongolia, Central Asia and ASEAN members in order to truly intergrate the region. As a result, the head office of the Asian Community will find a good reason to come to Incheon, completing its journey to become the Brussels of Asia.