▲ Four years since Jeju gained self-governing status, the province has increased the amount of tourists, been give 1,700 rights, but at the cost of local democracy. Photo by Yang Ho Geun.
On July 1, 2010 Jeju celebrated its fourth year as a special self-governing province. For many foreigners that call Jeju home, at least temporarily, this term is as elusive as the island’s other government christened moniker of being a Free International City. To understand these two terms one must view them as being interconnected. “Our ultimate goal is to be a Free International City,” said Ryu Do-Yeol, assistant director of the Division of investment Policy for the Free International City Bureau of Jeju, “and the Special Self- Governing [Province status] is the method.”
Like many government slogans that the island adopts it is Konglish, admits Ryu, a hybrid of two ideas conjoined into a nonsensical bite-sized morsel. The “Free” is derived from the term, free economic zone, which is an area with less economic restraints than that of its country, with the purpose of trying to attract foreign investment.
“International” comes from the province’s desire to be an International hub in Asia, primarily for tourism.
It was in 2002, with support from President Roh Moo Hyun, when the Free International City act was passed, but shortly after “Jeju realized we need more autonomy to manage the free international city,” said Ko Sang-Ho, Deputy Director of the System Improvement Team for the Special Self-Governing Province Division. To help facilitate the end goal President Roh suggested Jeju to become a self-governing province. Jeju submitted a proposal to the central government and the province held an election on July 27, 2005.
This election was not to directly establish the island as a special self-governing province, but the result of the election ushered in Jeju’s present status. Prior to 2006 there were five elected representatives for five separate areas; The Jeju governor, the Seogwipo City mayor, the Jeju City mayor, a governor for the northern county and one for the southern county. Before the election if the provincial governor wished to develop a project in Seogwipo, both the Seogwipo mayor and the governor of the southern county would have to agree. According to both Ko and Ryu, this impeded the economic growth of the island, due to the inefficiency of bureaucracy.
As stated in documents from the Jeju government, of the 402,003 citizens of the island at the time 36.7 percent voted with 57 percent in favor of the bill. Ko said, if the percentage of voters was 33.3 or lower the vote would have been overturned and another election would have been held. The bill ratified the five separate constituencies and created only two; Jeju City and Seogwipo City. The provincial governor would appoint a mayor for either city, thus allowing less channels and potential opposition in which to implement legislation. A year later the Jeju Special-Self Governing Act was passed by the central government.
Every year since then, the central government has granted Jeju rights that were once controlled by the country. Currently, 1,700 deregulations have been bequeathed to the island with another 2,100 in waiting to change hands.
One of the major changes concerns the yearly budget allotted by the central government. Instead of each of the five areas of Jeju submitting budget requests to Seoul, only one is sent, allowing Jeju to dispense the money where needed. Another drastic amendment is with immigration, such as the new law that was passed in November 2009, that permits any person who purchases property worth over 500,000 dollars America will be granted Jeju citizenship. Ko said, in the future the only responsibilities the Korean government will oversee are military, diplomacy and law.
During the four year wake since the special bill passed there has been controversy. Ko said “it is very uncommon to have no opponents when we’re trying to change the administrative system for the first time in the last 60 years.” Most of this opposition concerns the lack of local democracy. Though, a huge supporter of the changes Ryu admits, some “people are concerned about losing their autonomous rights. Some say it is a governor dictatorship.”
One of the newly elected provincial governor Woo Keun Min’s campaign promises was to reinstate the electoral process for city mayors, highlighting that this was, and until there is an election for those positions, still is an issue.
Since the implementation of the special self-governing status Ryu said foreign investment has increased, particularly from China and tourism has grown by 1 million visitors, though this hike only occurred this year. The reason why local newspapers are a flood with development plans such as the Jeju Global English City, Jeju Health Care Town and others is because the change of the governing system is still fresh and these are endeavors the government hopes will morph a relatively unknown tourist island in to a international city.
According to Ryu, “[President] Roh’s idea was decentralization. He wanted to spread the rights and authorities from the central government to all provinces.” He added that President Roh “designated Jeju as a test bed.” Ko seems to disagree stating that all provinces wish to have the special self-governing status but the government will not allow it. “It is very unlikely to happen,” Ko said, “because if they give the self-governing right to Busan or Gangwon-do, they would have way too much power. The central government won’t be able to control the province. Jeju is so small, even if the island does whatever it wishes they will be able to control Jeju.”
The island as an autonomous governing body is still in its infancy and is rapidly growing. It is learning to speak a second language, mending past mistakes and making friends. With the new governor in charge Ryu said one of his other campaign promises is to diversify the island’s economy and branch out it to manufacturing and exporting, instead of relying so heavily upon tourism.
“The success of the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province is not guaranteed just because Jeju has all the exceptional regulations,” said Ko. “The citizens of Jeju have to actively participate … to achieve the ultimate goal of special self-governing province, of being a truly Free International City.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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