A police officer points out real-time traffic flow on an electronic map of Jeju at the C-ITS HQ in Jeju City. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

JEJU ISLAND – “That’s not wind,” laughs Woo Koang-ho as a brisk gust, fresh off the sparkling East China Sea, whips through his hair. “That’s money!”

Woo should know. As representative director of Tamra Offshore Wind Power Co Ltd, he oversees a farm of turbines just off the coast of South Koreans’ favorite vacation destination, Jeju Island.

The turbines are a pilot for more projects across this island, which lies 100 kilometers south of the peninsula’s southern coast. But wind power is just part of the reinvention that Jeju is undergoing.

The tourism-centric island has its own ideas to upgrade its visitor offerings and is being used as a testbed for a range of projects that, after national analysis, could be rolled out across mainland South Korea.

Offshore wind farm manager Woo Koang-ho with turbines to his rear. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Hi-tech tourism

The island, with its clean beaches, stone walls, rugged highland interior, spritzy air and strong light attracts a certain kind of visitor and resident.

“Jeju’s landscape heals,” said Rachel Stine, a US expatriate educator. “When  I start a family I am going to explore housing options in the interior of the island. The tangerine farms, beaches and mountain trials make Jeju a space where kids can reconnect with nature.”

Governor Won Hee-ryong is keen to talk up the new trend of tourism that Jeju has been implementing since geopolitical tensions saw Chinese mass tourism to the island evaporate in 2016.

Now, Won says, the island is less about big projects and more about environmental, individualized, shallow-footprint tourism with an emphasis on the island’s natural sights, ingredients and experiences.

“Tourism, agriculture and fishing are our core industries,” he told visiting foreign reporters this month. “But we believe the new direction should be allowing visitors to experience a new lifestyle in Jeju linking nature, our unique culture and IT.”

One example: Jeju City has established a wi-fi network with full island coverage. Free to use for all visitors, the network also grants Won’s team access – assuming users who click into the system grant permission – to a vast range of visitor data.

Another idea is to use virtual reality and augmented reality as a marketing tool to allow overseas visitors to “discover Jeju’s natural beauty.” While the island is currently limited to domestic visitors, before Covid-19 struck, Jeju was marketing itself to Japanese and Southeast Asians.

And in a nation that is famed for skin-care products, Won mentioned a potential scheme to take DNA samples from cosmetics shoppers. That would enable merchants to sell products most ideally suited to buyers’ skin types.

Driving on data

Not all projects have gone swimmingly. The island, with its population of 670,000, is home to 25,000 electric vehicles but Won admits “they are too dependent on subsidies.”

More successfully, since 2018, the island has been implementing the C-ITS, or Cooperative Intelligent Transport System – more than 300km of the island’s road network. According to Kang Su-cheon of Jeju Municipal Police, the system aims to upgrade traffic convenience, reduce accidents and cut emissions by reducing congestion.

The C-ITS is an integrated smart system that wirelessly shares real-time data between an AI-enabled central control hub and networked cars. Some 3,000 rental cars island-wide are synched into the system, which has planted a vast range of devices – sensors, radars, CCTV cameras – across the road net.

A police officer points out integrated hardware components of Jeju’s C-ITS traffic management system at the system HQ in Jeju City. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Why rental cars? Kang notes that 65% of visitors to the island hire cars, and these vehicles are responsible for around 500 accidents a year. 

The in-vehicle component of the C-ITS is an electronic dashboard – officially, an OBS, or On-board System. It provides navigation and a wide range of information to the driver in both Korean and English, from the speed of other road users to road and weather conditions to road hazards to upcoming pedestrian crossings and traffic lights.

This being Jeju, the OBS also provides information on tourist sites around the island, as well as parking spaces.

It was Asia Times’ observation, in a 20-minute test ride around Jeju City, that the OBS offers drivers only a slight upgrade to GPS navigation services that can be widely downloaded on smartphones.

However,  the C-ITS has reduced accidents by 12% since 2018 – and the real-time feedback it provides to Jeju’s traffic control center, where the system is monitored on a range of giant, James Bond-ish electronic and CCTV displays, offers a wealth of traffic-flow management options.

For example, an AI that oversees the system can change traffic lights ahead of speeding emergency vehicles to green, accelerating the critical “golden time”. According to Kang, this has resulted in an average two minute and 32-second cut in the time it takes to whisk victims from the scene of the accident to the emergency room.

The vast amount of data collected by the system enables comprehensive analyses of traffic flow. Asia Times was also told that it could, feasibly, be used in post-accident legal cases. And as the C-ITS is so sensor-heavy, it is being used as a testbed for autonomous (ie driverless) vehicles.

The C-ITS OBS, or On-board System in action in a rental car on the roads of Jeju City. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Similar systems are being piloted in other parts of Europa and Asia, Kang, said. In Jeju, the C-ITS is part of a national pilot project.

While Jeju’s system is being used to test rental vehicles, a similar network in Seoul, established over selected public transport routes, is being used for buses. Another network in the industrial city of Ulsan is being used for trucks, and yet another network in the city of Gwangju is being used for vehicles for the handicapped.

As of the end of 2020, these four pilot projects have been under assessment by national authorities for potential nationwide rollout.

And smart traffic management is not the only sector where Jeju has provided a testbed for the mainland.

A bank of CCTV displays at the C-ITS HQ in Jeju City. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Money on the winds

Under Jeju’s nascent carbon neutrality plan, “new registration of internal combustion engines will be banned from 2030,” Governor Won vowed. “This is a broad direction” he added. Specifics such as how hybrids fit into the system would be decided later.

When it comes to the broader issue of energy use, rural Jeju enjoys an advantage that sets it apart from the heavily industrialized mainland. It is not home to the giant manufacturing complexes that drive the national economy but which are guzzlers of energy.

That makes the island highly suitable for renewables, an area where South Korea is lagging far behind the rest of the developed world.

Government sources in Seoul told Asia Times that South Korea’s energy mix is about 6% renewable. But other data sources are less charitable.

In 2018, according to the International Energy Agency, the country “had the lowest share of energy from renewable sources in energy supply among all IEA countries.”  And according to Our World in Data, the share of energy from renewables in Canada was 27.64%, in Germany 17.4%, in the UK 14.45%, in China 12.26%, in Japan 9.31%, in the US 8.71% and in India 7.78%. South Korea’s percentage was just 2.54%.

But while Korea may be lagging the world, Jeju is leading Korea.

The country’s first offshore wind farm, of 10 turbines, was installed 500-1200 meters off Jeju’s northwest coast by Tamra Offshore Wind Power Company in 2017. Each tower is 80 meters high. The farm generates 30 megawatts.

Tourists photograph themselves in front of Jeju’s offshore wind farm. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

The energy generation was “more than we expected,” Woo, Tamra Offshore’s representative director, said. Looking ahead, he expects offshore wind plants to sprout up on “all four corners off the island.”

Following Jeju’s example, there is now a modest total of 30 offshore turbines installed around Korean coasts. “But these numbers will grow fast,” Woo said.

Indeed, Woo’s wind farm will soon be dwarfed by a far bigger national project. In May, President Moon Jae-in announced plans for a massive wind farm off the east coast. Budgeted at 36 trillion won ($31 billion) the project should generate 6 gigawatts of energy.

However, that project is set for completion in 2030. Currently, Jeju has 172 onshore turbines. These, combined with the more efficient offshore turbines overseen by Woo, as well as a range of solar cells installed across the island, generate some 400 megawatts.

As a result, Jeju’s energy mix is 16.2% renewable – well north of the mainland’s rate.

With major developed countries this year having made aggressive carbon neutrality promises, a belated spotlight has been shone on renewable energy in Korea. As a result, Tamna Offshore’s wind farm has become an unlikely tourist attraction.

Pensions and cafes in the area advertise views of the turbines. Asia Times noted a steady stream of young couples arriving to take selfies on a nearby jetty.

“Sure, we came here to photograph the wind farm,” Lee Chun-hee, a 40-something mainlander on an island tour with a friend, said.