The sorry tale of Sejong City
By Aidan Foster-Carter
One of the Korean Peninsula's many ironies is that South Korea sometimes seems
to get less attention than the North. That is perverse. True, Kim Jong-il's
antics concern us all as his regime heads for the buffers. Also, modern media
tend to favor the weird, wild and wacky.
But the noxious North's more normal neighbor matters too. A rumbustious
democracy since 1987, South Korean politics are vivid, hard-fought - and
sometimes downright depressing.
So unless you're a Korea junkie, you may not have heard the sorry tale of
Sejong City. I'll tell it as neutrally as I can, for no one comes out of this
well. It's a big ongoing mess, which reflects
badly on the priorities and prejudices of both left and right alike in South
We begin with the late Roh Moo-hyun: the perky populist who to general
surprise, and most people's eventual dismay, narrowly won the presidency in
2002. Like many South Koreans, Roh - who sadly took his own life last year -
had a thing about inequality. He was against it.
A noble sentiment, but here's a puzzle. Comparatively speaking - and what other
way can we speak? - South Korea is among the world's most equal societies.
Statistics confirm one's impressions. This compact country has abolished
desperate poverty: a stunning achievement. Pretty much everyone has the basics,
which nowadays means broadband as much as rice.
Sure, not all Koreans have equal life-chances. But compared with the gross
social and regional inequalities that disfigure the likes of Brazil, China,
India or most of the planet, South Korea looks reasonably equal: an east Asian
Scandinavia. Yet that's not how Koreans see it. They fret about inequality, and
fretting makes for bad policy.
But back to Roh Moo-hyun. As a country boy from the southeast who scorned the
elites (it was mutual), Roh didn't like Seoul. He had a point, sort of. Way
back in 1968, US diplomat-scholar Gregory Henderson in a famous book and phrase
characterized South Korea's capital as a vortex: sucking power and people in to
the center, to the detriment of the provinces.
So Roh decided to move the capital. A drastic step, you might think - as did
many Koreans. Unsurprisingly, the fight against this was led by the mayor of
Seoul: a certain Lee Myung-bak. The resisters won. In October 2004, the
Constitutional Court declared Roh's plan illegal.
Roh riposted with a "capital lite" option. The site chosen - Yongi-Gongju, 150
kilometers south of Seoul - would become an administrative city. Most of the
government would move there: nine ministries and four agencies, to be precise,
but not parliament nor the president.
This plan was still vague and arguably nuts, but opposition weakened as
elections drew near. Why? Because behind the blather of balanced regional
development, it was all about votes.
Chungchong region, where the new city will be, holds the political balance
between the left-leaning Cholla provinces of the southwest and long-dominant
conservative Kyongsang in the southeast. (I'm using the good old names, but the
ghastly new romanization decreed by Roh would have you spell these Jeolla and
Gyeongsang. So much for Korea's "progressives".)
Thus when veteran dissident Kim Dae-jung finally won the presidency in 1997 at
his fourth attempt, it was only thanks to an odd alliance with his former
nemesis Kim Jong-pil, the founder of the dreaded Korea Central Intelligence
Agency which in the bad old days tried to kill him. As Chungchong's strongman
Kim Jong-pil delivered his home region's vote to his old foe - who rewarded him
with the premiership.
If that was opportunist, at least it broke the old Kyongsang elite's
stranglehold. It also gave a young democracy its first peaceful power transfer,
and a visionary leader who both tackled the 1997-98 financial crisis and
reached out to North Korea in happier times.
Matters are more venal nowadays. Chungchong's swing vote remains crucial, and
don't they know it. So when Lee Myung-bak went from being mayor of Seoul to
presidential candidate, his hostility to the new Sejong City - named after a
15th-century scholar king who invented Korea's alphabet - suddenly eased. Lee's
conservative Grand National Party (GNP) needed this region's votes, and
Chungchong demanded the pork and perks that a huge construction project brings.
The move still made scant sense, but by now the bandwagon was rolling.
In 2007, Lee won the presidency by a landslide. Once in power, surprise
surprise, he began to backtrack on Sejong. But it was already being built, so
something had to be done with it. In January, Lee came up with a revised plan,
which by any objective criteria made more sense.
Rather than splitting the government in half as originally planned, the new
scheme redefined Sejong as a hub for business, education and technology. In
classic Korean style, big chaebol (conglomerates) like Samsung as well
as universities were leaned on to build facilities there.
Earlier, in a clever stroke last August, Lee picked a new prime minister to
push the new plan through. Chung Un-chan, a liberal economist, was a surprise
choice. Hailing from Gongju, he nonetheless opposed the original administrative
city idea as economically irrational.
That didn't make him popular. Most of Chungchong feigned fury at the change.
It's hard to see why: the new plan would surely deliver more investment and
pork. Seeing a stick to beat Lee with, Roh Moo-hyun's heirs in the opposition
Democratic Party (DP) joined the furore.
More worryingly for Lee, his own party split. His old rival, Park Geun-hye,
jumped on the Sejong bandwagon. The daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee
(1961-1979), Park was beaten by Lee to the GNP's presidential nomination, With
some 50 GNP lawmakers loyal to her, the president didn't have the votes to get
the revised plan through the National Assembly.
So it was deadlock - until the June 2 local elections gave Lee a mid-term slap
in the face. The GNP lost widely, not least in Chungchong. A bruised Lee
relented, saying he'll leave it to parliament to decide. (Not a bad idea in
principle, but in practice a craven retreat.)
On June 23, an assembly committee voted 18-12 against the revised Sejong City
plan. It isn't quite dead yet, as GNP supporters of Plan B will try to force a
vote in the full assembly. But with Ms Park's crew joining the opposition, the
chances that reason will prevail look slim.
So expect to hear much more of Sejong City in the years ahead, but don't expect
good news. Already Samsung and other companies are saying they won't invest the
total of US$3.7 billion they'd pledged under Plan B if it's now full speed
astern back to Plan A for administrative.
Premier Chung Un-chan's head may roll to carry the can, even though he's almost
the only person to emerge from this episode with his honor intact. And when the
time comes, no doubt ministries and civil servants will grumble and resist
having to move out of Seoul.
Apart from the cost - $16 billion and counting - all this will be a mighty
distraction for Lee and especially his successor, to be elected in 2012 (Lee
can't run again). They have plenty of real problems on their plate, from
keeping South Korea competitive to coping with whatever the North may hurl at
them next - including possible regime collapse once Kim Jong-il dies.
Speaking of which, Roh's plan to shift the capital southwards was even sillier
in the light of future reunification. In that event the seat of power should
surely move north: say to the old Koryo dynasty capital of Kaesong, just across
the current border and not too far from Seoul.
Meanwhile, South Korea is stuck with Sejong City, and must make the best of it.
To follow progress, check out the kitschily named happycity.go.kr - which in
turn will tell you "About MACCA". (That's as in Multifunctional Administrative
City Construction Agency, rather than Sir Paul MaCartney.) This hasn't been
updated in a while, but it waxes eloquent about "realization of Green City
which can be harmonized with nature". Let's hope for harmony.
Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and
modern Korea, Leeds University, UK.