At the very end of 2011, the mayors of Jeju City and Seogwipo City resigned from their positions on the same day.
Kim Sang Oh, a man with 30 years experience working for and running the local branch of Nonghyup (National Agricultural Cooperative Federation) stepped up to take the reins as the Jeju City mayor.
The timing was good. Kim, 57, was up for retirement at Nonghyup and was looking for his next challenge, perhaps in public office. In particular, he was wondering what he could do to improve conditions for Jeju farmers.
After all, everything on his resume has led him to the agricultural industry. Kim spent his entire working career with the federation, and even graduated from Nonghyup College in 1976. He spent the last 12 years working with Governor Woo Keun Min to develop Jeju agriculture.
“I have done my best to help Jeju farmers,” he said confidently.
On Dec. 30, 2011, Governor Woo appointed Kim as the the new mayor, taking over from Kim Byung Lip, who resigned citing personal reasons. As it turned out, the Jeju City mayoral race was uncontested.
On the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 16, Kim sat down with The Jeju Weekly to outline his plans for his two-year term as the 27th Jeju City mayor.
To being the conversation, Kim said he thinks that Jeju’s primary industry is too focused on mandarin farming.
“Farmers who do dry-field farming are the ones who spend more time and effort, compared to orchard farmers. But their income does not reflect their efforts,” he said. “If the cost of radishes goes up, everyone starts planting radish, and the price crashes. It happens not only with radishes but also cabbages and more.”
“I realized that someone should set a standard or create an axis for those farmers.”
Last May he formed a committee to strengthen the competitiveness of dry-field farming with a group of farmers.
The new mayor said that regional development on Jeju is completely unbalanced. He pointed out that even though Jeju City is much more advanced regarding city planning than Seogwipo City, it is about 20 years behind in terms of agricultural production. The gross income for Seogwipo farmers is on average 10 times that of Jeju City farmers.
It was this fact that prompted him to throw his hat into the mayoral ring.
“I felt that this era had called me to be the mayor,” said Kim, adding, “We can’t catch up with Seogwipo City agricultural production anytime soon, but I want to provide direction.”
He believes that the “farmers’ mind” is a key to accomplish anything and everything.
“Farmers are very honest and pure. Farmers believe in the maxim, ‘As one sows, so shall he reap.’”
As with any political office or appointment, Kim has attracted his fair share of skeptics who question how his experience at Nonghyup will translate into good leadership as the administrative head of the city’s civil service.
“Not many people know it, but Nonghyup is, as a cooperative federation, a type of self-governing body. This is stated right in the Korean Constitution. With my experience working at Nonghyup for 27 years, I’m sure I’m well prepared for this duty,” said Kim.
Though he joked he would need a five-year term to make things happen for Jeju City, he said he is serious about his ultimate goal — to make Jeju citizens happy.
Referring to the Aesop’s Fable of “The North Wind and the Sun,” Kim said, “We can’t force people to take off their coats, but in the sunshine they will automatically do so. I cannot directly provide a happy life for the citizens, but I can provide the means to accomplish this goal.”
One thing he wants to establish during his term is a campaign for civic awareness and participation. He wants citizens to learn the importance of basic etiquette. He said he personally tidies up the street near his house every morning.
During the interview Kim kept emphasizing the importance of the agricultural industry. Comparing farming to tourism, he said on the surface the profitability may seem similar. But farming entails three areas of production — land, labor, and capital — which all belong to Jeju Island, “meaning all profits will benefit Jeju.” However, Kim conceded that in terms of tourism, while the land and labor is from Jeju, the capital is generally from the mainland. Thus profits will tend to flow off-shore.
Kim pointed to the need to strengthen the primary industry, recover from economic hardships, and balance development within the city as the three biggest problems that his office is currently facing. Regarding the Korea-US FTA and the Jeju agricultural industry, Kim stressed the need for government and business “to work together to come up with strategies and be ready for the opening of import and exports.”
For mandarin farming, Jeju City will maximize its support with 28 different projects, which are carefully planned to expand production, export, and the distribution system.
In order to revitalize the economy, the city will provide 3,485 jobs. Also, strengthening traditional local markets was suggested. Jeju City will help vendors to create specialized markets to attract more customers, as well as modernizing the markets like Dongmun and Seomun Markets.
Equal development in Jeju City will be achieved through urban regeneration by renovating the older parts of the city.
To improve the quality of lives for Jeju citizens, he wants to be out in the field more. “I want to personally visit citizens to listen to what they have to say. I want to apply as much public demand as possible to the administrative decision-making process,” said Kim. In fact, his beginning of the year tour of Jeju City, starting with Chuja Island, was underway on Jan. 17.
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