Following the Flip-Flop Trail: Petrochemistry by Caroline Knowles

2013-01-11 09.36.22   As the oil tanker from Kuwait approaches the coast of South Korea at Daesan, corporate Korea rises up to meet it. Oil refineries and petrochemical plants line NW coastline around the Yellow Sea. The jetty fingers of the giant corporations of the Korean Chaebols – Hyundai Oil Bank, Samsung Total, LG and the Lotte Daesan Petrochemical Corporation – suck the oil ashore. Daesan, 120 km SW of Seoul, is only 400 nautical miles from the China coast and has markets hungry for oil and plastics. The oil is piped from the tanker in the deep harbour into the giant round holding tanks of the Hyundai Oil Bank Refinery: at this junction the oil industry ends and the world of petrochemicals unfold. Oil from Kuwait is routed through the naphtha cracking plant and broken down into the building blocks of the petrochemical industry and piped next door to the vast LG Chemical Plant to be turned into plastic granules.

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On this section of the flip-flop trail access to petrochemical plants provoked almost impossible. Before leaving London I had emailed all of the big companies. Some of them even advertised tours of the plant for foreign visitors, and I filled out those forms too. When I heard nothing I began calling and in many instances quickly hit a language barrier as I don’t speak Korean. In order to overcome this I employed a Korean research assistant who was a student at Berkeley, prepared to fly back to Seoul to help with the research over his long winter break. He wrote emails in Korean and then made follow up phone calls to the major companies – there are no small companies; petrochemicals are high tech capital intensive operations – in Ulsan, Daesan and Head Offices in Seoul. The answer, where we managed to get one, was always ‘no’. On the face of it access was impossible. We agreed to turn up anyway and see if we could talk our way in. Plan B was to work outside one of the plants with workers as they left work, trying to fill in what happened inside, and with the hope of being introduced to work colleagues and family members. The point of the flip-flop trail is to unfold its human fabric and landscape.

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After spending a night in Seoul without my luggage, which the airline had left at my stopover in the Middle East, we took the bus from Seoul to Seosan City, and then boarded another bus to Daesan. It stopped right outside the LG plant gates. This seemed as good a place as any to start so we hung around the security barriers inside the entranceway watching people arrive and leave while trying to keep moving: it was minus 15 degrees C. Then we asked the security guard if we could go inside the plant, explaining what the research was about: he refused saying that we need permission to get in. When we asked whom we had to speak to get permission he wouldn’t tell us that either. Finding who to ask was a problem we met online from London too, as company websites protect employees anonymity. We hung around a bit more hoping to wear the guard down. Then a subcontracted engineer, going in to the plant repair a machine, who had overheard our conversation with the security guard told us to wait until he got back, saying ‘there is always a way’. When he returned he gave us a lift to our hotel and some information about the plant. He said he would try to get us into Samsung where he was working on repairs a few days later.

Although he wanted to help, and possibly felt sorry for us, in the end he did not have the authority or contacts to get us into any of the plants. Not knowing whether this lead would be a dead end or not, the next day we arrived back at the LG security gate to sit in a café opposite in the hope of making some more contacts. It was lunchtime and the café was full of LG men in uniforms taking a lunch break. I noticed an older distinguished looking man I thought might be senior. When he slipped outside for a cigarette the research assistant followed and smoked with him telling him that we were trying to get into the plant to understand how it worked and who worked there. He seemed sympathetic but offered no advice. As we went back to eating lunch a call came through to the café for us: it was the senior man, who turned out to be Mr Kwon, saying he would phone security and authorise our access for ‘a meeting’. Minutes later we were inside the plant and our investigation underway.

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The official face of Corporate Korea is much sterner than its personal face, which is warm and generous. Mr Kwon introduced us to his team and other colleagues who invited us to their homes: he hosted dinners for us and extended every possible support for the research. We made two visits to the plant, which is vast and eerily unpeopled, once being shown how the plastic granules are made, and a second time on the LG bus, which drove the workers in and out of the plant for the start and finish of their shift. It felt good to have got into such a highly securitised space. On several occasions I walked around high fences with razor wire and security cameras taking photographs of the plants in the area trying to take in the impact of petrochemicals on the landscape. I had always to work quickly before I was stopped and questioned. As I usually left the research assistant in the car, security had no way of communicating with me and would usually give after a few minutes and let me go: sometimes it helps to be a clueless-looking foreigner.

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths based at CUCR. Her research is about circulations of people and objects and, in addition to publishing many books and papers, she is co-author (with Douglas Harper) of Hong Kong: Lives, Landscapes and Journeys published (2009) by University of Chicago Press.

For further information contact C.knowles@gold.ac.uk

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