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[Op-Ed] Gunsan’s Renaissance

Posted June. 15, 2009 06:54,   


The port city of Gunsan in North Jeolla Province was opened in 1899. Its population back then was just 588 but the city grew into the country’s second-biggest port under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). Rice produced in nearby plains was shipped through the port. “Muddy Stream,” one of the representative works by novelist Chae Man-sik, is about Gunsan. In the novel, a government official sells his assets in his hometown to move to Gunsan. The city at that time had a rice futures market, which was nothing less than a gambling place. The official ended up squandering his fortune. Gunsan once flourished thanks to the rice industry but its economy has stagnated since liberation from Japanese rule in 1945.

The city is seeing a renaissance, however. While other cities have suffered a chronic population drain, Gunsan has seen population growth of 5,000 people over the past two years. Further development is expected with the Saemanguem land reclamation project nearby. The city government in 2007 invigorated its economy by getting the shipyard of Hyundai Heavy Industries to move to Gunsan. The city has also attracted 397 other companies over the past three years. Reflective of these favorable developments, the price of individual public land in the city has risen 14.22 percent from a year ago, while those in other cities fell.

Under the premise that the only way to revive the Gunsan economy is to attract companies, the city government has promoted public servants who attract companies and promised sweeping support to enterprises that move to the city. If the Hyundai shipyard, which has the world’s biggest dock, starts operations in February next year, a large influx of people is expected. Thus, the future of a provincial city hinges on its ability to lure companies.

Gunsan is also known for its cultural assets. Manifesting its old glory, modern architecture built after the opening of the port has been well preserved. More than 100 old buildings in the city remain, include the buildings of the former Chosun Bank and customs office. They would have been demolished had the city conducted an urban redevelopment project. Gunsan’s stagnant economy saved them from demolition, however, because the city could not afford redevelopment. The city is also a popular set for movies and TV dramas, prompting cultural figures to urge development of a city section as a theme park of modern culture. Hopefully, the city will be reborn as a venue where modernity and contemporariness co-exist.

Editorial Writer Hong Chan-sik (chansik@donga.com)