You are traveling at 230 kilometers per hour, but the motion is barely perceptible: while tunnels, villages and hillscapes zip past through the windows, the ride could not be smoother. Welcome to South Korea’s bullet train: the KTX.

In an example of how to do Olympic legacy projects right, an ultra-high-speed rail track and a four-lane road expressway have been opened just in time for February’s 2018 Winter Games. The two links connect Seoul, in South Korea’s west, with the country’s east coast.

The new road link, with 31 tunnels along its length, plies a scenic route through hills and mountains and slashes 40 minutes off the time previously taken to drive across the peninsula. It opened last summer. The high speed rail track is even more impressive. Replacing an old, round-about rail route that took five hours and 50 minutes to traverse, the shark-snouted KTX, or Korea Train Express, races across the width of the country, through 34 tunnels and over 53 bridges, in just two hours, one minute. It opened on December 22.

These transport links puts the populace of the greater Seoul area – the Incheon-Seoul-Suwon conurbation, together with its necklace of dormitory towns, totaling some 25 million people, or half of the national population – within easy striking distance of the playground province that plays a similar role in Korea that Orlando does to the United States: Gangwon.

For an underpopulated, rural province best noted for its great weather and scenery, the upcoming Olympics, in Gangwon’s Pyeongchang Country, provide a rare financial windfall. Longer term, the province’s leaders hope that its post-Olympic prospects will be as bright as the sun Koreans flock to watch rise at dawn from its beaches.

Road-rail infrastructure: powering growth

“In the past, we had access problems – but now that access problem has been solved,” said the governor of Gangwon Province, Choi Moon-soon, in a meeting with foreign reporters last week. “I expect to bring more visitors from nationwide, and from all over the world, as now people can visit more easily. We expect economic benefits!”

Korea, Choi said, has invested some KRW14 trillion (US$13 billion) on Pyeonchang 2018. Of that amount, KRW3 trillion (US$2.8 billion) has gone on stadia and sporting facilities, and 11 trillion (US$10.2 billion) on infrastructure. While the road and rail projects were long-planned, the eventual winning of the Games – Pyeonchang bid for Winter Olympiads in 2010 and 2014, prior to its eventual winning of 2018’s hosting rights – accelerated progress.

IMG-9276
Buddhist temples nestle among Gangwon’s hills. Photo: Andrew Salmon

“These projects were not exclusively for the Winter Olympics, they had been planned by central government,” Moon said. “But we made that plan a little bit faster for the Olympics.”

Rugged and rural, Gangwon is home to the Taebaek mountains, Korea’s most spectacular mountain range; to its highest town (also Taebaek); and arguably its finest beaches, which are washed by the pristine Sea of Japan. But Gangwon is the only divided province on the peninsula. The DMZ bisects Gangwon, which played host to heavy combat during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Due to its proximity to the menacing North, Gangwon was customarily underinvested in, Choi explained. The bulk of Korea’s heavy industry rose in the southeast under the stern eye of authoritarian nation-builder Park Chung-hee, the president who ruled Korea from 1961-1979. As a result, the leading industry of Gangwon today is tourism, Moon said. Last year, the province welcomed 100 million visitors, the governor stated – double Korea’s national population of 50 million. 

IMG-4377
Gangwon Province is noted for its rugged scenery – scenery that is now within two hours of Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon

Now the province is suddenly easily accessible from Seoul. To fully leverage these links and lure more visitors, it needs new content and is mulling new attractions not dependent upon climate and geography. “The task is to create more cultural programs,” said Choi. “In winter, we have snow; in summer, we have beaches. Now, we need more festivals.”

Entrepreneurs are already taking a post-Olympics interest. “We saw the possibilities for a beach-front, Western-style barbeque restaurant in Gangneung,” said Seoul-based chef and restaurant consultant Lee Sung-min, referring to one of the province’s best-known coastal towns. “Gangeung is like a blue ocean: I have been several times and there’s nowhere decent to eat!”

Added to the terra incognito element is a price incentive. “In Seoul, rents are so high,” Lee said. “But in Gangneung we got a very handsome price.” He and his investors anticipate the KTX having a similar effect on Gangneung as it did on Busan, Korea’s second city. The 2004 opening of Korea’s first-ever KTX line from Seoul, in the northwest, to Busan, in the southeast, proved a bonanza for the latter city’s tourism sector.

IMG-0883
Gangwon’s scenic coastline is famed across the peninsula. Photo: Andrew Salmon

The benefits of the new transport links will extend beyond tourism, officials hope. Gangwon has historically been under-populated: It is home to a mere 1.5 million people, a population in line with that of a medium-sized Korean city.

“We expect a population increase, as retired people want to come here – we have clean air and good scenery,” said Kim Sung-hwan, chairman of the Gangwon Arts and Culture Foundation. “In fact, in [the coastal towns of] Gangneung and Seokcho, house prices have already increased.”

Taking flight: infrastructure as development fast track

It is not only terrestrial transport links that are coming online in time for the Games.

South Korea’s leading air gateway, Incheon International Airport, opened in 2001, one year before the 2002 Japan-Korea World Cup. With the Winter Games approaching in February, the airport’s second terminal opened for business on January 18 – complete with an observation deck, cultural performance stages, photovoltaic panels and even robots to guide passengers to their gates.

The US$2.5 billion five-story structure is expected to service 18 million passengers per year, expanding Incheon’s overall capacity to 72 million air travelers annually.

These new road, rail and air facilities have an auspicious ancestry, for Korea has a long track record of utilizing national infrastructure to kick-start national growth.

IMG-0962
Olympic mascots greet visitors at Gangwon’s brand new KTX stations, but the province’s officials hope the bullet trains’ impact will be felt well beyond the Games. Photo: Andrew Salmon

When the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea was an economic basket case. Its “economic miracle” was kick-started in the 1960s with the Seoul-Busan highway. The highway got Korea’s concrete and construction sectors up and running for the building of the highway itself; petrochemicals, steel and auto industries were then incubated to create the vehicles to run on it.

Subsequently, in the early 1990s, the country’s “high technology miracle” was ignited when the government invested broadband internet on a national scale and adopted a highly advanced CDMA mobile telecommunications network. Companies like Samsung and LG created the gadgets to run over these networks; firms like SK and KT ran services.

“Historically, South Korea has benefitted hugely from major infrastructure projects,” said long-term expatriate Hank Morris, a securities analyst. “The new transport links will help in the development of mountain recreation resorts and of commercial activities – especially the dispatch of east-coast agricultural products to Seoul in a more timely fashion than has been the case.”