Incheon aims to be home to international business
This is the first of a two-part article on the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ). In the first part, The Korea Times looks at the past and present of the port city of Incheon. The future of Incheon with a focus on the IFEZ will be continued in the second part to be published on Wednesday.
By Kang Hyun-kyung
INCHEON ― Amid a cold snap, 121 Koreans, both single and married men and women of all age groups, flocked to the shabby, poorly equipped Jemulpo harbor near Incheon Bay on Dec. 22, 1902.
Brimming with mixed feelings of both excitement and fear for their new life overseas that would be fully unfolded about a month later, these pioneers were waiting for a ship that would usher them to the then uncharted territory of Hawaii, by way of Nagasaki of Japan.
Back then, the people in the port city of Incheon and the northern provinces, including the Hamgyeong Province now in North Korea, were eager to find a new place to live outside the country in search of more employment opportunities and an affluent life.
About a century later, the nature of the port city has changed a lot. It is no longer temporary homes to aspiring emigrants seeking a better life abroad.
Global businessmen and women, academics, researchers and hospital management take a closer look at the shabby fishery town-turned-world-class city as the Songdo International Business District now offers a business-friendly climate, as well as geographic conveniences.
The reclaimed land, the western part of Incheon, was set aside by the government to become a Free Economic Zone several years ago.
Songdo has been gradually transforming to become a world-class "Smart City" where all necessary amenities and green facilities make it possible for residents to attain higher standards of living and a more satisfying quality of life than those of any other city in the world.
The city is now courting international investors looking for a location that has it all for a thriving venture ― a favorable business climate, a supportive research and educational environment and close vicinity to the vibrant Northeast Asian markets.
Pioneers looking for better life overseas
Back in 1902, the 121 people departed Incheon by a ship and arrived in Nagasaki, Japan for medical checkups. Completing all the necessary steps and measures needed for immigration to the United States, these people then boarded the steam ship Gaelic for a long and treacherous journey to the land of promise.
It took about 20 days for the pioneers to finally arrive in the new land. Of the 121, only 102 people disembarked and stepped into Honolulu about a month later, marking the first Korean generation who immigrated to the United States from Korea.
Long hours of manual work under a scorching sun outdoors, homesickness, and other formidable challenges, including adjustment and assimilation to the new culture, lay in store for them.
In an article titled "The First Wave Pioneers," Esther Kwon Arinaga, whose father was one of the 102, described the major factors that had motivated them to seek a better life in such a faraway land as Hawaii.
"In several of the provinces (in Korea back then), a severe drought had ruined crops, causing widespread famine," she recalled.
"In northern provinces, particularly around Pyongyang (at the time), stories began to circulate about Hawaii as a place where a person could get rich quickly and where education was free."
The retired lawyer and writer also mentioned the hostile socio-political environment ― Korea was surrounded by nations with imperialist ambitions such as Japan and Russia ― in those days as another reason prompting them to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Living in the dark days, people would have felt easily hopeless and helpless and would have attempted to find a place to live abroad where they would have no worries or frustration.
After years of resistance to those foreign imperialists, Korea was annexed to Japan in 1909.
The number of Koreans who had immigrated to the United States and other nations had increased until 1905 when Japan, which later became a colonial master of Korea, imposed a ban on immigration to other nations.
According to the local government, 65 ships carried 7,226 Koreans who left the country via Incheon bay from 1902 to 1904.
Code name 'Operation Chromite'
Due to its location close to oceans and to China, Incheon has played a key role in bringing cultural diversity to the homogenous country.
Its vicinity to the capital also made Incheon an appropriate place to start a military operation to retrieve the nation from enemy's hands during the 1950-53 Korean War.
The port city was at the center of international attention in September 1950 because of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Incheon landing operation, code named "Operation Chromite."
In a British documentary titled "Korea, The Unknown War," Frank K. Pace Jr., U.S. secretary of the army from 1950 to 1953, said the legendary military leader convinced him and other key post holders in the United States to approve the risky mission.
"I would say to you that if that (the Incheon landing operation) had been recommended by anyone other than Gen. MacArthur, I believe it would have been stopped," Pace said.
The former secretary recalled that MacArthur was close to a myth in the minds of Americans in those days.
The Incheon Bay was not considered an ideal site for the military operation.
The great danger involved navigating Incheon's infamous tidal flats and treacherous waves. The geological conditions also made it difficult for the U.S.-led forces to conduct the operation.
Despite the disadvantages, the port city was only 32 kilometers west of the capital, Seoul, and if the challenging operation turned out to be successful, the forces could easily cut the North Korean supply lines.
As Gen. MacArthur instinctively knew, the operation in a wrong place, from the point of view of then many military experts, except for himself, effectively turned around the disaster for the U.N. forces.
North Korea never expected the U.S.-led forces to risk such a critical mission in such an unfavorable place.
International business district
After more than 50 years since the end of the Korean War, war-torn Incheon has transformed into a vibrant port city shaping the backbone of the national economy. About 2.8 million people reside there.
The Songdo district, the southwestern part of Incheon, was designated by the government as a FEZ.
Urban planners eye the appealing and creative "smart city" where all necessary facilities and institutions are located in one town within a 30-minute walking distance. This is its greatest lure.
Its location stretching over the West Sea, the port facilities, and the vicinity to the vibrant regional economy in Northeast Asia were the major factors selecting the region as the site for the international business district.
The flight time from Incheon to Beijing and Incheon to Tokyo is only one and a half hours. It takes three hours from Incheon to Hong Kong by plane.
Under the 17-year development plan, the first phase of building infrastructure (from 2003 to 2009) for the Northeast Asia business hub was completed last year.
During the first four-year period, approximately 46 trillion won ($43 billion) was invested in building infrastructure. Of the funds, 88 percent came from the private sector.
A massive reclamation project had been completed over the past six years. And the 20.4-kilometer-long Incheon Bridge had its grand opening last year after four years of construction. The bridge connects the Incheon International Airport to the Songdo district.