GWANGJU -- Gwangju has been a symbolic city for its contribution to South Korea's democratization, most notably the 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising where hundreds of civilians protested against the then military government.
Keeping its historic legacy and the spirits for freedom and democracy in its heart, the city is now setting sights on the future, said Kang Ki-jeong, the city's mayor, pointing at the city's high tech industries.
“Gwangju has a developed lighting industry and now has its own lighting cluster. There are about 600 researchers related to the lighting industry, and more than 300 companies in it. It is internationally recognized in the fields of optical communication and LEDs," he told The Korea Herald.
"Also, in terms of Artificial Intelligence and the development of its big data industry, Gwangju is certainly ahead of other cities."
Gwangju was an early investor to the AI industry as it began encouraging companies a decade ago. There are now more than 100 AI companies in the city, with some 10,000 staff specialized in AI. NHN Cloud is building a national AI data center in the city. When it opens in October, it will be the nation’s largest AI data center.
“Gwangju also stands out in the future car industry because it has manufacturing facilities of Kia Motors and Gwangju Global Motors, and it is ahead of other cities in terms of AI and big data, at the same time. The future car industry requires Gwangju’s high-tech for its technologies, such as autonomous driving,” Kang said.
Kang stressed that the high-tech industrial complex needs to be strategically located in Gwangju not only for balanced national development but also for the country's future development.
In March, Gwangju has won a bid to house a new industrial cluster for future auto technologies. The state-designated cluster will be built on 3.3 square kilometers of land by 2030. About 670 billion won ($500 million) will be injected to the project. The cluster will have a center to certify autoparts to be used in future cars and advance artificial intelligence.
Gwangju's passion for future industries does not stop here.
It has been competing with other 14 municipalities to win a bid to host a semiconductor specialized complex.
Semiconductors are one of Korea's top five export items, accounting for about 20 percent of the country's total exports, according to the Ministry of Trade. Since the government has declared that it will support the sector as a strategic industry by building the semiconductor-specialized complex, significant incentives are expected to be provided to attract semiconductor firms, although details of the plan have not yet been announced.
“Gwangju already attracted a government-led 'semiconductor research institute' in May, making it a suitable place for a semiconductor specialized complex. So that it will be able to train the related experts at universities in Gwangju and Jeolla Province with about 44.5 billion won in state funding over the next five years," he said.
"If Gwangju is selected to host the semiconductor-specialized complex at the announcement in July, the complex and that trained personnel will create good synergy."
To nurture higher value-added industries, Gwangju attracted foreign direct investment worth with 492.7 billion won in the first quarter of this year, the largest amount among municipalities excluding Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon.
Kang also believes that young people who have left for the Seoul metropolitan area to get jobs will return to Gwangju if the city promotes various industries. Gwangju's population has decreased slightly, from 1.47 million in 2014 to 1.43 million as of February 2023, as young people moved away.
“Gwangju is preparing to hold the largest start-up festival in Korea. Some 150 billion won is invested around Gwangju Station to create a start-up valley there with the goal of completing by 2025. It will also operate a 500 billion won start-up innovation fund soon. Young people who dream of starting a business will want to live in Gwangju," he said.
The mayor has also set another goal of attracting 30 million tourists to the city by promoting its cultural heritage from “son-mat,” or culinary skills to international contemporary art sh the Gwangju Biennale.
Gwangju is developing one-day tours specializing in art and food to attract local and foreign tourists. A "One Month Living in Gwangju" program will also be launched within the next year. A large shopping mall will be built in a few years in line with projects to turn Gwangju into a new tourist destination, he said.
"I will keep trying to solve all the tasks given within this term," he said, before wrapping up the interview. He also stressed that by pursuing these strategies, he hopes to increase the overall competitiveness and development of the country as a whole. "Gwangju will try to develop with the country through the development of Gwangju."
"During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the city developed a lot as a large number of public institutions were deployed in Gwangju to seek balanced development between regions. The Moon Jae-in administration sought balanced development through fiscal decentralization," he said.
"I hope the Yoon Suk Yeol administration also actively promote balanced regional development by deploying various industrial complexes in Gwangju."
Mayor Kang Ki-jeong began his political career in 2004 by winning a parliamentary seat for a constituency in Gwangju. After serving three terms, he was appointed senior presidential secretary for political affairs by President Moon Jae-in in 2019. He was elected as mayor in July 2022.
This is the fourth installment in a series of interviews with heads of municipalities in Korea, exploring the policy commitments of local governments in promoting balanced development and regional competitiveness. — Ed.