Sejong City Controversy - Insight into Korean Politics

by CHOE Sang-Hun, IHT 3 March 2010, 11/03/2010

From a hilltop observation tower, potential investors are shown a sweeping vista of drained rice paddies and cleared pine forests, where trucks are moving earth and cranes hoisting steel beams to build an ambitious new city, dubbed “Happy City Sejong.”  But few South Koreans are happy about this 16.5 trillion won project, which over the years has morphed from plans to create a totally new national capital, then an administrative center to, most recently, a university and science park.

The controversy surrounding Sejong could serve as a primer to South Korean politics. Its conception, its radical reconfigurings and the fury these have aroused say volumes about how power is gained and maintained here. A provincial governor has resigned in protest. Farmers living near the construction site have held rival rallies for and against. The roads to “Happy City” are festooned with angry black and red banners, some calling the development a scam. And the project has sharpened the rift between the country’s two most powerful politicians: the president, Lee Myung-bak, and the faction leader in his own party who is most likely to succeed him in 2013, Park Geun-hye.

Both Mr. Lee and Ms. Park agree that a city — encompassing 18,000 acres and accommodating half a million people — should be built. But they disagree so bitterly over what kind of city that they recently accused each other of “robbing” the nation.

During his campaign for the presidency in 2002, Roh Moo-hyun offered a bold solution to the problem every South Korean leader had deplored but failed to fix: the strangling congestion of Seoul and its surrounding towns, which house half the country’s 49 million population. Mr. Roh’s plan was to move the capital out of Seoul, which had been the seat of Korean government for six centuries, to a site 110 kilometers south. The proposed location was politically significant — between North and South Chungcheong provinces.

Chungcheong is the country’s king-maker. South Korean politics have long been dominated by rival political bosses from Gyeongsang in the southeast and Jeolla in the southwest. Both can count on loyal voters in their home provinces. But to win national power, they need outside support. Less populous Chungcheong has never produced a president, but it can determine which province does.

In 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled against the plan. It said that although the Constitution itself does not say where the capital should be, it “customarily” considers Seoul the capital and that any plan to build a new capital should be approved through a constitutional revision. President. Roh then presented Plan B. He proposed to relocate most government agencies — but not the Defense and Foreign ministries, presidential office or Parliament — to Sejong, now redefined as a “multifunctional administrative city.”  The Grand National Party, which was in the opposition at the time, and Ms. Park, who was its leader, voted in favor of Mr. Roh’s idea in Parliament in 2005. She too was eager to please Chungcheong voters.

Construction began in 2007. The first government agency was to transfer to Sejong in 2011. A vehement opponent of moving any part of the capital out of Seoul was the city’s mayor — Mr. Lee, who held the office from 2002 to 2006. But in 2007, he ran for president. And, like so many other national candidates, he went to Chungcheong to pledge his support for the project. Last November, on national television, now-President Lee said that that turnaround during the campaign was an expediency to win votes. Now, Mr. Lee said, it was his “historic duty” to resist pork-barrel politics and a wasteful “splitting of the capital” between Seoul and Sejong.  He revised the Sejong master plan, though the revision has yet to be approved by Parliament, envisaging an “education and science town” complete with a rare isotope accelerator. Universities would open research campuses. Samsung and other businesses would open high-tech factories. But all government departments would stay in Seoul. Opposition parties and many Chungcheong residents erupted with outrage.

But the biggest challenge came from within Mr. Lee’s own party, from legislators loyal to Ms. Park, diminishing his chances of pushing his idea through Parliament. The plan must win a majority approval in Parliament to become a reality. Ms. Park is widely expected to run for president in 2012, and political analysts say she would almost certainly do well in Gyeongsang, the home province of her father, Park Chung-hee, the late military strongman of the 1960s and ’70s. But she also would have to attract voters in Chungcheong, which happens to be the home province of her mother, Yuk Young-soo, the first lady who was killed in a failed assassination attempt against her father in 1974.

For South Korean voters, generally disillusioned with politicians backtracking on campaign pledges, Ms. Park’s accusation that Mr. Lee is just another of this untrustworthy type packs a powerful punch and enhances the image she has been trying to build of herself as a principled politician who keeps her word, analysts say. President Lee’s supporters argue that his November statement is a rare and praiseworthy case of a South Korean political leader owning up to a mistake and trying to correct it. Still, it could be argued that publicly renouncing the old Sejong plan still championed by Ms. Park might be another political maneuver. The Constitution bars Mr. Lee from running for re-election. But the emergence of a powerful contender to succeed him, even within his own party, threatens to undermine his authority and diminish his chances of advancing his program.

The clash between the two leaders over Sejong leaves the nation almost equally divided, according to surveys, including the residents of Chungcheong.  Government officials are struggling to keep up with the latest presidential line. Bureaucrats who only a couple of years ago were proclaiming the merits of transferring government agencies to Sejong now warn of the disaster that would unleash.

Photo from IHT article 3 March 2010

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