Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Korea # 2, Inchon to Joenju: Living Close to Your Food

Korea #2: Living Close to Your Food

757 words, reading time four minutes

To Americans of a certain age, the name “Inchon” stands for the only thing General Douglas McArthur got right during the Korean War:  a surprise invasion at Inchon after preparing not at all for North Korea’s invasion in 1952.  Today it’s the site of a world-scale airport and industrial area and the western anchor of 50 miles of continuous urban development. 

Greater Seoul is the second largest metro area in the world at 26.5 million, behind Tokyo, and the world's 4th largest metropolitan economy.  It was devastated until the l960's. But this remarkable development pattern looks quite different other similar corridors: Koreans are still within walking distance of their food.

I’m on the 6:30 a.m. bus from the airport headed 3.5 hours south to Jeonju, all freeway.  We stop at a smaller airport and hit some rush west of downtown but speed along nicely.  Over the first 50 miles we are seldom out of sight of clusters of apartment buildings, perhaps 25 stories high. There are thousands upon thousands of them, not in great concentrations, maybe 10-20 in one place.  In between are low commercial buildings and some land being cleared for more development.  But what is striking is that there are fields upon fields throughout this stretch growing a large variety of crops.  And tens of thousands of greenhouses.  I’m not exaggerating.  Moveover, while there is development on both sides of the freeway, the east side is wooded for long stretches. 

Is there another area, including Europe, which so carefully protects in agricultural land?   While Koreans are not all living next to their specific food supply, they still have a visual connection to the country’s history and food source.  Small gardens can be seen along the way.

One of my questions for this trip is “How did Korea develop so quickly?”  In 1970 North and South Korea were roughly equal in development, hard as that is to believe.  They shared the same culture and history and had extended families on both sides of the border.  Both were occupied by the Japanese from 1905 to l945 and dominated by autocrats after the war.

Today North Korea has a modern nuclear and military system but its people often starve while South Korea has jumped into the first ranks of developed countries.  How could this happen?

The 50 miles south from Inchon may give us a clue.  This pattern required a high degree of central planning on top of abundant private or public capital.  Yet rather than displace agriculture, most was allowed to remain, connecting one high-rise complex with another.

Korea has been growing rice in this area for 2,000 years.  Previously farms were probably very small.  Now they have been consolidated and variety greatly increased. 

What happened, I learn later, was that private companies were allowed to condemn sections of agricultural land but only if 80 percent of the landowners agreed to the purchase, at a fair market price.  This is quite unlike what happened in China.  On top of this must have been a serious but democratically-established zoning authority.   

Apartments reflect a degree of uniformity you would never see in the United States.  I could see no balconies on thousands of high rises.  None.  One reason so many people could be well housed quickly may be that uniformity has lowered costs.  While balconies may be banned, small equivalent space is often built into the apartments themselves: open a sliding door in one room and you have a little sun room. 

Strung out development like this requires a good highway, rail and bus system. Korea has them all, owned by the government.  Korea has followed five year plans, the same as Russia, Cuba and, years ago, Mexico.  The difference between North and South Korea is not strictly that between statism and capitalism.  Korea has succeeded with a combination of both private enterprise and state determination of a common course moving forward.

After the high-rises fall away, agriculture and greenhouses fill the land all the way to Joenju, joined by low mountains and forests. Again, thousands of greenhouses.

We stop at a fueling and food plaza with a popular McDonalds, six fine coffee places, lots of great-looking Korean food and a charming playground for kids we wouldn't find in the U. S. 

On the bus this young man strikes up a conversation and offers to help me out in Joenju.  He looks a little goofy, maybe?  Koreans make a V or O sign when photographed.  Jungseob So is a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering at Georgia Tech and his PhD thesis is 96 rich pages of formulae.
Then Joenju appears.  I am about to begin a three-week return to academic life, the first time in a classroom in 50 years.  I have no idea how this will turn out.   



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