Seoul, South Korea – When Yoon Seok-yeol visited the southwestern city of Gwangju while campaigning to be South Korea’s next president last month, the conservative frontrunner’s speech generated headlines for days.
In a country facing thorny problems such as a rock-bottom birth rate and a nuclear-armed neighbour in North Korea, Yoon struck a chord with a decidedly prosaic concern: shopping complexes.
“I see the citizens of Gwangju are longing to have a shopping complex, where people can watch movies and buy staples, and which is also a cultural space,” Yoon, a former chief prosecutor-turned-political neophyte, said in his speech.
“You can find such shopping complexes anywhere else. Go to Busan and see for yourself. Or Daejeon and Daegu … Why are there none in Gwangju?”
Many young people in Gwangju welcomed the speech by Yoon, who is running neck and neck with his centre-left opponent Lee Jae-myung ahead of Wednesday’s vote, the run-up to which has spotlighted fairness-related issues such as soaring house prices and gender inequality.
Much of the rest of South Korea was surprised to learn that their country’s sixth biggest metropolis did not have a single shopping complex.
Among South Korea’s seven self-governing major cities, Gwangju is the only one without any large shopping complex or big-box retail stores.
Gwangju, a city of 1.5 million people located 270 kilometres southwest of Seoul, has for decades been a stronghold of a strain of left-wing politics that views big business with suspicion. The city and surrounding Honam region have voted overwhelmingly for a left-leaning candidate in every presidential election since the country’s democratisation in 1987.
In a recent newspaper column, Bae Hun-cheon, the leader of a campaign aimed at establishing a shopping complex in Gwangju, pointed to the ruling Democratic Party’s monopoly on local governance and exceptionally strong civic activism as the reasons for the city’s unique aversion to big retailers.
Several attempts to establish a shopping complex in the city have been made during the last decade to no avail.
Most famously, in 2015, Shinsegae, South Korea’s largest retail giant announced plans to build a shopping complex and hotel.
The retailer jettisoned the plans following two years of administrative deadlock and protests by local merchants’ groups that later attracted the support of Moon Jae-in, the ruling party-affiliated incumbent president, and Lee Jae-myung.
Despite Gwangju’s association with the political left, many city residents appear ready to welcome big business to their home.
In a survey carried out by a local newspaper last July, 58 percent of respondents said the city should welcome large shopping malls. Support was especially strong among younger residents, with more than 70 percent of those aged 18-39 in favour.
Others have criticised Yoon’s promises for failing to offer credible solutions to the southwestern region’s underdevelopment.
“A responsible political party should offer solutions for quality jobs for the region, not churning out temporary jobs (with large shopping complexes),” The Gwangju branch of the minor left-wing Justice Party said in a statement.
“How could they expect the citizens to spend when there’s no money since there are no jobs?”
Lee, Yoon’s opponent, has dismissed the idea of building a large shopping complex, promising to redevelop traditional markets in the city instead.
South Korea’s industrialisation
Cho Gwi-dong, the author of a book on the development of the Honam region, said the city’s de facto one-party rule could be traced to the history of South Korea’s industrialisation.
“During industrialisation, Korean entrepreneurs based their business on their networks based on regionalism, school relations, and kinship,” Cho told Al Jazeera. “The politicians, the military and the high officials who nurtured them were also part of these networks.”
During the era of military dictatorships that held sway between the 1960s and 1980s, most political and military leaders hailed from the southeastern region of Yeongnam, which includes the major cities of Daegu and Busan. Regional favouritism among the ruling elites helped Yeongnam-based conglomerates like Samsung and LG to flourish into world-renowned brands.
“Isolated from industrialisation, the people of Honam couldn’t grow their own conglomerates, entrepreneurs, and the social capital required for modern business activity,” Cho said.
Disconnected from the centres of power, the Honam region came to rely on left-leaning political parties to compete with other regions for resources from the central government.
Cho said the recent debate on shopping complexes showed that the traditional model of hyper-localised politics was faltering.
“Previously, the local establishment had local politicians and consumers on their side when the capital tried to set foot in their city,” Cho said. “The issues one-party politics can’t solve, including the shopping complex one, are emerging as we see now.”
Recent polls also suggest a weakening of the country’s traditional regionalism ahead of the presidential poll.
While a conservative presidential candidate has never received more than 10 percent of the Honam vote in a presidential election, Yoon, who represents the centre-right People Power Party, has garnered as much as 30 percent support in some opinion polls.
“The hostility toward the conservative party contributed to Honam’s absolute support for the Democratic Party but the regional development stalled,” Yu Chang-seon, an independent political commentator in Seoul, told Al Jazeera.
“Yoon’s shopping complexes pledge has led to a bigger debate about whether the ruling party’s dominance in the region has actually been beneficial or not. So it is of significant interest how many votes the conservative candidate can garner in Honam.”
The fraying regionalism comes even as gaps between the capital region and the rest of the country are widening. The greater Seoul area’s share of gross national income grew to 55.6 percent in 2019, compared with 51.7 percent in 2000, according to the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements, a state-funded think-tank.
The population is also increasingly concentrated around the capital. For the first time in history, the greater Seoul area’s population in 2019 accounted for more than half of the country’s approximately 52 million residents.
Cho said local politics would have to offer better solutions for regional development than haggling over the central budget, which is outmoded in the modern era.
“To look squarely at Honam’s problems and seek solutions will ultimately help the nation overcome other provinces’ problems, too,” Cho said.