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Incheon: the next white elephant city

July 16, 2014, at 9:49 AM
 

Incheon, the big industrial port near Seoul, in South Korea, is going bankrupt.

But you wouldn't know it from the press and hype.

Construction cranes are everywhere. BMW just built a high-tech test-drive center there, at a cost of $75 million. The Asian Games kicks off there later this year. More than 10 new stadiums have been erected in the city since it was awarded the games, the crown jewel being a brand new 20,000-person soccer field.

The city and national government are paying a lot to spruce up the city before the games. The city, epicenter of March's Sewol ferry disaster, needs a morale boost.

But there's a good chance that, come this fall, the city's elementary and middle schoolers will bear the cost.

Alex King, 25, is approaching his third year as an American expat in Incheon. At a salary of $2250 a month, he teaches English to Korean students. That's a paltry living, but King has built a nice life.

Today, he sits in an empty office at his school, waiting for word from the city about whether the contract that governs his work, and that of many other foreign language teachers, will be renewed.

The city has been on the verge of bankruptcy for years. Successive administrations have diverted money from secondary education to development and infrastructure projects, the biggest of which, an extension of the Line 2 subway, is two years beyond schedule. The bare coffers are forcing tough choices. The school district needed to hire 200 additional teachers for the coming year; the Superintendent said no. King believes that the education office is simply out of money. To service the debt, the national government is trying to hold cities accountable. That translates into social service budget cuts.

Two years ago, the country's auditor suggested Incheon was a bottomless pit. The city had issued bonds for projects that were redundant (there are three perfectly good soccer stadiums in the Incheon vicinity) or ambitious. One billion won was spent on the main stadium alone. In the early aughts, Incheon was caught up in the craze that seeded economic development zones across Asia. Songdo and Cheongla used to be muddy beaches; 10 years later, they're still not finished.

As a foreigner, King has fewer job protections than his Korean counter-parts. His job is not considered a formal part of the civil service — not even "true employees." Some colleagues were fired for traveling overseas this summer, violating a bizarre dictum from the central government. But his value as a teacher exceeds his status. Korean teachers of English can write the language and prepare students for exams, but they generally do not speak the language well.

"All these kinds will be learning is how to read language and take tests. They won't be able to speak it," he said.

If King's contract isn't renewed, he can find another job somewhere. (He speaks four languages fluently.) He doesn't feel bad for himself. He's just frustrated that Incheon seems to be going the way of the white elephants, "with the political establishment choosing prestige and feel-good projects over economic good sense and education," he said.

"They can elect new officials, but whether or not stuff will get done is a different story," he says. "It's just like America."

When King takes the subway to work, he notices a prominent label on the subway map for Incheon Tower.

The tower that would anchor the city. 150 stories.

Then, budget realities intervened, and the tower lost 45 stories. Now it has been scrapped.

Not to worry, though: just last week, its smaller cousin, the 68-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower saw its ribbon cut. It's South Korea's tallest.

 

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