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Gangwon Province Envisions Free Tourism Belt on the East Coast of Two Koreas
An Interview with Gangwon Province Gov. Choi Moon-soon
Gangwon Province Envisions Free Tourism Belt on the East Coast of Two Koreas
  • By Jung Suk-yee
  • December 18, 2018, 17:40
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Gangwon Province Gov. Choi Moon-soon

For Choi Moon-soon, governor of Gangwon Province, 2018 must be a memorable year. In February and March, he hosted the PyeongChang Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, which significantly enhanced the global recognition of the host city and province. In the June local elections, the governor was re-elected to a third and last four-year term. In September, he visited Pyongyang as a member of the entourage accompanying President Moon Jae-in. Most recently, the province’s assembly has finally passed his plan to build a LEGOLAND Park in Chuncheon, the capital of the province, after wasting seven years due to disputes. One more event remains to cap off his successful year – a groundbreaking ceremony for reconnection of inter-Korean railways and roads to be held at Panmun Station of Gaeseong in North Korea on Dec. 26. During an exclusive interview with BusinessKorea, Choi explained why cross-border railway and road linkage means so much for him and his province. Following are excerpts from the interview with the governor:

Why are the proposed cross-border rail and road connections so important to Gangwon Province?

The groundbreaking ceremony symbolizes the shift in inter-Korean relations from confrontation to peace. When the rail and road networks of the two Koreas are reconnected, inter-Korean economic exchanges will get into their stride. This means a lot for Gangwon Province, which is the only province that remains divided by the border. During the past seven decades, Gangwon Province has sustained enormous damages due to various regulations resulting from the division of the Korean Peninsula. Residents of our province are all too well aware that without peace, economic growth cannot be attained. If peace is established and inter-Korean exchanges are activated, a new economic foundation will be established for Gangwon Province. The ultimate goal of our efforts to promote inter-Korean exchanges is to improve the quality of life for these residents and revitalize the region.

The leaders of the two Koreas announced the Pyongyang Joint Declaration at their summit in Pyongyang in September. In the economic field, they agreed to hold a ground-breaking ceremony within this year for the east-coast and west-coast rail and road connections. They also agreed to normalize the Gaeseong industrial complex and the Mt. Geumgang tourism project, and to discuss the issue of forming a west coast joint special economic zone and an east coast joint special tourism zone. First of all, please tell us how you would follow up the proposed east-coast rail and road connections?

Linking the railway and road systems of the two Koreas is in line with the New Economic Map Initiative for the Korean Peninsula proposed by President Moon Jae-in. Pursuant to the New Economic Map Initiative, Gangwon Province plans to extend the rail line and roads to North Korea.

To connect the inter-Korean rail line on the east-coast, South Korea needs to build the Gangneung-Jejin section of the Donghae Line.

To reopen the Donghae Bukbu Line, a former rail line that connected Anbyon of North Korea with Yangyang of South Korea, we need to extend the Donghae Line from Gangneung to Jejin on the South Korean side. Building the 110.2 km-long section is our top priority as it is essential to completing the East-coast Energy and Resource Belt envisioned by the New Economic Map Initiative.

The South Korean government’s vision calls for the two Koreas to cooperate to develop Mt. Geumgang, Wonsan-Dancheon and Chengjin-Rason regions of North Korea and connect the east coast of the Korean Peninsula with the Russian Far East to create an energy and resource belt

We will support this grand vision by accelerating the construction of the Gangneung-Jejin section of the Donghae Line, which will cost 2.35 trillion won (US$2.07 billion). We will talk with the central government to ensure that the project can be launched early. But actual construction work can only start three years later at the earliest because it takes three years to complete the design for the new section.

At the same time, we are planning to promote the construction of what we call the ‘Peace Highway’ to improve access to the DMZ peace belt, restoration of the destroyed rail sections of the Gyeongwon and Mt. Geumgang lines and construction of the Chuncheon-Cheolwon, Pocheon-Cheolwon and Sokcho-Goseong highways.

We call these infrastructure projects ‘peace SOC projects. They will contribute to revitalizing the economy of Gangwon Province and serve as a growth engine.

What preparations do you make to revive the Mt. Geumgang tourism project?

I visited Mt. Geumgang Nov. 18 to attend a commemorative event held jointly by the two Koreas to mark the 20th anniversary of the Mt. Geumgang tourism program. I have found that the North has well preserved the tourism facilities built by the South and is ready to operate them. I felt that the North is keen to promote tourism and open itself up to the outside world.

Gov. Choi (second from left) plants a tree with other officials during an event held in Mt. Geumgang of North Korea on Nov. 19 to mark the 20th anniversary of the tourism program to the scenic mountain.

Since the suspension of the Mt. Geumgang tourism project in July 2008, residents in Goseong County have suffered severe damage. The county’s economic damage resulting from the loss of 2.1 million tourists a year is estimated at 38.4 billion won (US$33.8 million) a year. On top of this, the suspension of the tourism program caused a slowdown in the local economy by decreasing local taxes and increasing business closures. The county’s aggregate damage so far is estimated at 393.6 billion won (US$346.9 million).

The resumption of the tourism project is longed for not only by the people at the border but by the general public. However, the two Koreas should first resolve the pending issues, including guaranteeing tourist security and the restoration of the South’s assets confiscated by North Korea, through working-level talks. Furthermore, the tour program cannot be resumed without the Seoul government lifting the ban on economic exchanges with North Korea, which were imposed on May 24, 2010, and an easing of the U.N. sanctions against the North.

The two Koreas have also agreed to create a joint special tourism zone on the east coast. What are your plans to realize the vision?

The South Korean government's New Economic Map Initiative proposes to create an economic belt along the east coast and link it with the Russian Far East.

We are planning to create a “free tourism belt” on the east coast and develop tour programs linking the Mt. Geumgang tourism zone in the North and the Mt. Seorak tourism zone in the South. For this, we will develop tourist resources in the Seorak-Goseong-Gangneung region in response to North Korea's Wonsan-Geumgang special tourism zone. We will first focus on the key areas (Goseong and Seorak) and then the extended areas (Inje, Yangyang and Gangneung).

Our plan is to create an international free tourism zone which also serves as a South-North Korea economic cooperation base. To attain this vision, I think it is necessary for the central governments of the South and North to allow Gangwon Province, which is the only province divided by the border, to be integrated and operated as a special self-governing province. In the South, we have the example of Jeju Province as a self-governing province. The envisioned Gangwon Self-governing Province will have autonomous powers regarding inter-Korean exchanges. I think this is one practical way to institutionalize peace on the Korean Peninsula. We are planning to ask a research organization to carry out a feasibility study on our plan next year.

You have announced plans to co-host the 2021 Winter Asian Games with North Korea. Have you started negotiations with North Korea?

It is important to co-host the Winter Asian Games in order to continue peaceful inter-Korean relations catalyzed by the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games and utilize the Olympic facilities.

The cost of hosting the event is estimated at about 80 billion won, only a fraction of the 2.8 trillion won spent for the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games. We expect North Korea to agree on co-hosting as they can hold an international event at the Masikryong Ski Resort. The key to holding a Winter Asian Games is winning the central government's approval of our plan. We will do our best to persuade them.

Please tell us other projects pushed by Gangwon Province for inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Despite the mood of reconciliation and peace between the two Koreas, sanctions against the North continue to operate. Under these circumstances, there are limits to the promotion of inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation.

However, by responding flexibly to internal and external situations, we are planning to push ahead with the inter-Korean exchange and cooperation projects. First of all, we will continue to promote exchanges and cooperation in non-political and non-economic areas, focusing on building mutual trust.

We will hold a joint event in February next year to celebrate the first anniversary of the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games and contribute to the development of inter-Korean relations.

We will continue inter-Korean sports exchanges by participating in the 6th edition of the Ari Sports Cup U-15 Youth Football Tournament, which is scheduled to be held in Wonsan, North Korea in May next year.

In addition, we plan to promote exchanges and cooperation in forest development, culture and arts, and sports along with prevention of infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.

If international sanctions against the North are eased, we will promote other economic exchanges along with the cooperation projects mentioned above.

The PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games has improved the global recognition of Gangwon Province to some extent. Is the province reaping tangible benefits from the Olympic Games?

The PyeongChang Olympic Games boosted Gangwon Province’s brand value and highlighted it as a mecca of winter sports in Asia. The cumulative number of tourists to Ganwon Province during the first three quarters of this year totaled 96.62 million, up 3.4 percent year-on-year. Among them, foreign tourists accounted for 3.17 million, a 58.4 percent surge from the same period of last year. The increase rate is by no means small when we take into account China's ban on group tours to South Korea and a significant drop in domestic tourist arrivals during this summer due to abnormally high temperatures. We will step up efforts to develop post-Olympic tourism products and create a Winter Olympics culture and tourism belt to attract more domestic and foreign tourists.

The Olympic Games also boosted exports of local products. Gangwon Province's exports reached US$1.73 billion as of the end of October, up 20.1 percent from the same period last year. For the whole of this year, exports are forecast to exceed US$2 billion. Foreign investment into the province has topped US$1.05 billion. We will maximize foreign direct investment by undertaking strategic investment inducement activities.

The era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has arrived. What are the province’s growth engines?

Gangwon Province is pushing for eight major projects related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We have recently completed a mid- and long-term comprehensive plan and is working on detailed action plans.

In October, the Buron National Industrial Complex was designated as a "National Innovation Cluster" by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. We will combine it with the Medical Technology Valley in Wonju to foster the digital healthcare industry.

Gov. Choi (fifth from right) poses for a photo together with officials from the Korea Electric Vehicle Fusion Cooperative (KEVCOOP) and the Korea E-mobility Research Association after signing an agreement on creating an e-mobility cluster in Gangwon Province on Nov. 14.

In November, we signed an agreement with the Korea Electric Vehicle Fusion Cooperative (KEVCOOP) and the Korea E-mobility Research Association to create an e-mobility cluster in Gangwon Province. Under the agreement, the province will promote the relocation of the cooperative’s 10 companies to Gangwon Province to build a mass production system of electric vehicles. If the plan goes as planned, Gangwon Province will enter high-tech manufacturing.

The eight projects also include the creation of a hydrothermal energy-based industrial complex in Chuncheon and the launch of a tuning cluster in Inje County, which has Inje Speedium, a motor racing circuit.

The province also plans to build a carbon nano fusion center in the plasma industry complex in Cheolwon and create a hydrogen-based energy-related industrial complex in Samcheok.

If inter-Korean relations improve, economic exchanges with North Korea will provide Gangwon Province with another growth engine. We are planning to promote a new ICT industy complex in Cheolwon, which is similar to the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. Like the one in Gaeseong, the new complex will be run by North Korean workers, but unlike the Gaeseong complex, the new one will be set up south of the border to ensure a stable operation of the factories to be built by South Korean ICT companies.