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[Robert J. Fouser] Sejong City back in limelight again

Sejong City is back in the limelight. Politicians of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, are rallying behind a proposal to move the president, the National Assembly, and government ministries from Seoul to Sejong.

Named after King Sejong, whose epithet is “the Great,” the city grew out of former President Roh Moo-hyun’s plans to encourage balanced regional development by moving the capital from Seoul to the center of the country. The city was founded in 2007 and parts of the government began moving to Sejong in 2012, bringing the current population to 340,000.

From the start, plans to make Sejong a new capital faced resistance. In October 2004, the Constitutional Court ruled against moving the capital, forcing President Roh to limit the move to government ministries and agencies. As the capital, Seoul remained a “special city,” and Sejong gained the cumbersome title of “special self-governing city.” Though the city has yet to become the capital, the debate over its future prompted the government to continue decentralization by moving public companies and agencies to other regional cities in addition to Sejong.

Efforts to reduce the concentration of jobs and people in Seoul have a long history in South Korea. In the mid-1970s, President Park Chung-hee pushed the idea of building a new capital to slow the growth of then-booming Seoul and offer greater protection in case of a North Korean invasion. The plans faded with Park’s assassination in 1979, but President Chun Doo-hwan began to push his own plans by moving government research centers and encouraging corporate research centers to move to Daejeon. The growth of the city as a high-tech research center continued in the 1990s.

The efforts to decentralize Seoul from the 1970s to the 1990s focused on slowing the population growth and enhancing national security. By the time Roh Moo-hyun became president, Seoul’s population had stopped growing and, with the end of the Cold War, fear of a North Korean invasion had fallen. Roh pushed the new capital as step toward balanced development that would help reduce the gap between Seoul and other parts of the country. Sejong was only part of a broader push that included greater regional autonomy and various other measures.

The current push to move the capital to Sejong comes from concern over skyrocketing home prices in Seoul. Moving the capital, supporters argue, will reduce demand for housing in Seoul, which will slow the housing market. In the long history of moving capitals, this argument is unusual.

Throughout history, most moves have come from symbolism related to nation building. Tokyo and Brasilia are classic examples, but there are many others. In 1868, Japan moved the capital from Kyoto, where it had been since AD 794, to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo, to symbolize the creation a new state modeled after Western powers. In 1956, Brazil pushed the development of a new capital in the interior of the country to foster balanced regional development. The capital moved from coastal Rio de Janeiro to Brasília in 1960.

More recently, overcrowding is also an important reason for moving the capital. In 2015, Egypt began building a new capital near Cairo to reduce crowding in the city. Recently, Indonesia has decided to build a new capital to reduce crowding in Jakarta, which is increasingly being threatened by rising sea levels.

Moving the capital to Sejong to reduce pressure on real estate prices in Seoul stands little chance of success because the city is too small and too close to Seoul to draw people away. Government workers would have to move, but many of them would end up keeping their families in Seoul anyway. Government ministries and agencies have already moved with no impact on home prices.

The price of housing, like other commodities, is based on supply and demand sprinkled with emotion. Prices are rising in Seoul because there is more demand than supply and because people believe that prices will keep rising. The best way to deal with the problem is to increase supply by building more houses and reducing demand by reducing commuting times from nearby areas. Structural reforms to encourage the construction of smaller, less expensive houses for purchase or rent will also help.

As the capital of a country of South Korea’s global standing, Sejong comes up short. It is architecturally boring and lacks cultural amenities. It lacks a KTX station and, like so many planned cities, is not very walkable. Instead of doubling down on Sejong, politicians should leave it as is and focus their efforts on more pressing issues.


Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com -- Ed.
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