Global Observer

Goodbye Seoul, Hello Sejong City

Goodbye Seoul, Hello Sejong City

Posting in Government | From Issue 13 March 10 & 17, 2014

What's the real reason South Korea is decentralizing its government?

SEJONG CITY, SOUTH KOREA -- For any civil servant tired of the rat-race in Seoul -- one of the most dynamic, but frenetic, cities on earth -- relief is at hand: In a very big, very bold move, South Korea’s bureaucracies are relocating nationwide.

Korea’s capital since 1392, and its surrounding province, houses approximately half the country’s 50 million people and most regulatory, educational and cultural assets: It is sometimes dubbed “The Republic of Seoul.” Although located at the center of the peninsula – “the belly button of Korea” – Seoul lies just 35 miles from the frontier with North Korea.

In 2004, Korea enacted, under reformist president Roh Moo-hyun (in power from 2003-2008) the “Special Act for Balanced National Development” to relocate governmental resources outside Seoul.

“Our present capital is located close to North Korea, so we needed to move it away within a reasonable distance,” said Oh Young-jin, editor of national daily The Korea Times and a former aide to the late Roh.  “And if everything is in Seoul, it is an inequality issue for provincial areas, which drives people from around the nation to Seoul.” 

The movement from Seoul, which lies with artillery range of North Korea, is being mirrored by the huge United States army base in the city center, slated to move south in 2018 to a site in Pyeongtaek, 40 miles south of Seoul. Even so, it is widely conceded that the main reason for the move was Roh's "balanced national development" agenda, his key electoral platform.

Citing the U.S. example, where New York is the center of business and Washington D.C. of politics, Roh proposed a new governmental capital city. He was challenged in Constitutional Court by then-Seoul mayor (and later president) Lee Myung-bak. Lee won: South Korea’s capital remains Seoul. Roh's plan became a political football and was watered down; not every government office would move. 

Library Night Time.jpg
The flagship chunk of architecture in Sejong City, Korea's new administrative capital, its library, after dark. Glass sided, it is designed to look like an open book.
 MACCA
 

Still, the broad relocation plan proceeded, given the consensus that Korea is, indeed, overly centralized, and given the site of the new administrative capital -- a strategic national electoral district.

In 2004, among Korea’s 410 public agencies, some 346 were in Seoul. Of these, 175 – including the presidential residence, the National Assembly, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – will remain. All others are currently being scattered nationwide. 

Hence the southeastern port of Busan becomes the new home to maritime- and fisheries-related agencies; the industrial-opolis of Ulsan, encompassing Hyundai Motors and the world’s largest shipyard, gets energy- and labor-related agencies; rugged Gangwon Province takes tourism-related offices. And so on. 

Given that Seoul used to be a "one-stop shop" for all Korean affairs – political, economic, commercial – experts are divided over the pros and cons of decentralization.

"Government officials are now having problems, they keep having to go to Seoul and back," said Kim Ji-yoon, a research fellow at Seoul think tank the Asan Institute. "So already there are inefficiencies."

"I suppose it depends on your function, but with video conferencing, IT and working remotely, being central is not as crucial as it used to be," said Dan Pinkstone, who heads the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group.

The jewel in the crown of decentralization, swallowing the largest clump of public offices outside Seoul - including Korea Post, the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, and the National Tax Tribunal - is the new administrative capital: Sejong City.

 

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Government workers sit on the roof of Sejong's central government complex. The rolling, 2-mile long rooftop garden connects all offices and is built around the landscape contours, so resembles a swimming dragon from above. The gardens feature gazebos, artworks - even office vegetable plots.
 Andrew Salmon
 

Seventy four miles southeast of Seoul – well beyond North Korea artillery range – it is handily located. “From North-South and from East-West, this is where all networks pass through,” says Lee Choong-jae, chairman of the Multi-functional Administrative City Construction Agency, MACCA. It lies between the industrial city of Daejeon (15 miles) and Gongju, an ancient capital (15 miles) and is 27 miles from Pyeongtaek port. “Every president has mentioned this area, not just Roh or Lee,” Lee added.

Construction on the 45-square mile city started in 2006; it is 40 percent complete. Residents began arriving in 2011; some 30,000 persons now live here. Thirty government agencies are already located here, manned by 11,000 civil servants, of whom all but 2,000 are residents; six more agencies will be in place by 2015.  By 2030, Sejong will be home to half a million inhabitants.  

For planning and design, Korea benchmarked Brazil’s Brazilia, Australia’s Canberra, Malaysia’s Putra Jaya, Canada’s Ottawa, Turkey’s Ankara and Kazakhstan’s Istana. MACCA’s Lee is keen to point out Sejong’s various innovations.

“This is not just any new city, it’s a ‘future planning city,’” Lee says. “People can come here to work, or to see benchmarks of, for example, architecture.”


 

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A quiet study-space in the library is flooded with natural light and offers views over the lake park.
 Andrew Salmon

Sejong is built around a lake park and adjacent hillscape. New Korean cities are required to include 20-30 percent green space; Sejong is 52 percent green. 

It boasts two architectural icons. Its seven-story, central government building features a garden running over its two-mile long roof, linking the 18 government agencies within. And its glass-sided library, designed like an open book overlooking the lake park is a particularly appropriate feature: the city is named after Sejong the Great, the medieval sage-king who invented Korea's alphabet, hangeul.

Sustainability was also a guiding principle. Sejong is served by buses running on an elevated roadway, making all parts of the city reachable within 20 minutes (including its out-of-town rail station). Garbage is separated into food and non-food waste. Dumped down chutes, it is conveyed by tubes under the bus lanes to an automated sorting station, and converted to bio-mass and methane for Sejong's power plants.

 

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The lark park, with its concert hall on the water, The lake also features lamp-lit floating islands, which can be manouvered and interlinked.
 Andrew Salmon
 But Sejong's commercial district is jarringly empty compared to Seoul. Is the new city not rather dull?

"In Seoul, you can enjoy drinking and clubbing," concedes MACCA's Lee. "But we are more family-centric, more natural. A housewife might prefer here."

"At the moment, I prefer Sejong: it's all clean, all new," added Park Chun-soo, a resident civil servant. "On the weekends, I can go into Daejon, it is only 20 minutes away by car."

But reportedly, many bureaucracies maintain "liaison offices" in Seoul for senior staff, and many bureaucrats commute to the capital on weekends. A recent TV documentary alleged a series of extra-marital affairs breaking out among  bored civil servants, and others are reluctant to move. "It may be time to find a new job," said an academic at an institute slated to move to Sejong.

Even former Roh aide Oh accepts that questions hang over the overall strategy.

"I think decentralization is the right idea, but the jury is still out," he said. "Posterity will cast the vote." 

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Andrew Salmon

Correspondent (Seoul)

Andrew Salmon is a freelance journalist, risk consultant and award-winning author based in Seoul. His books include “American Business and the Korean Miracle” (2002) and the Korean war histories “To the Last Round” (2009) and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow” (2011). He writes for Forbes, The South China Morning Post and The Straits Times, presents the weekly Arirang TV show “Bizline” and is a columnist for The Korean Times. He holds degrees from the University of Kent and from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is a council member of the Royal Asiatic Society’s Seoul branch. Disclosure