Monday, September 21, 2009

Sejong City

Chung Un-chan's confirmation hearings revive Sejong City controversies : Korea's next Prime Minister has been vocal against one of the late Roh Moo-hyun's most ambitious projects.

Sejong City ? The Brasilia of Korea : a new city built from scratch to accomodate the central government in a more central location (in Yeongi and Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do, on the Geumgang river). Korea is a little bit smaller than Brazil, but Seoul concentrates too much power in the country, and Roh wanted to change the ways of local politics. Will this project meet the same tragic end ?

Announced in 2002 during the presidential campaign and officialized by a March 18, 2005 law, the MAC (Multifunctional Administrative City) was named after Korea's most beloved king, the great Sejong.

Sejong Special Autonomous City (세종 특별자치시 - Sejong Teukbyeol Jachisi) broke ground on July 20, 2007 and plans the first massive transfers of administrations in 2012. When construction is completed, in 2030, Sejong area (3,579 km²) shall host 4 million people, the core of the project (72.9 km²) claiming half a million souls.

The MACCA (Multifunctional Administrative City Construction Agency)* was inaugurated on January 1st, 2006, with the daunting task of delivering the goods. "Multifunctional" means a selfsustaining metropolis, complete with "central administration", "local administration", "culture and international exchange",
"university and research" (a MOU was recently clinched with KAIST), "medical and welfare", and "cutting edge industry".

Sejong will learn from that other utopia, Songdo new city, focusing on environment and quality of life, with the usual IT touch. Each individual will enjoy an average 50 square meters of urban park, more than 5 times the national average : green space will cover 53% of the city (21% for residential, 14% for public facilities, 6% for education and culture). Thanks to a ring-shaped public transportation network, everyone will reach any part of the city from anywhere in the city within 20 minutes.

Sejong is not Brasilia, in the total middle of nowhere : Cheongju International Airport is not far away, nor is Daejeon. Remember Daejeon Expo 1992 ? Then, the idea was to grow a new hub at the center of Korea. And Daejeon is now a major center, connected with Seoul, Busan and Gwangju by KTX and highways... Sejong would compete with Daejeon but if carefully planned synergies could work, the Tokyo-Yokohama or Seoul-Incheon way. Korea would then have a third megalopole to balance Seoul and Busan...

Now the $45 bn question : will it fly ?

Chung points out the economic cost : beyond the tens of billions of dollars invested in the project, operating expenditures for the central administration are likely to explode, with permanent shuttles between Sejong and Seoul, and probably two houses for big fishes.

I'm more worried about the political and social consequences of Sejong City :

- At the beginning, the political genetic pool shall gain in diversity but in the medium to long term, the risk of sedimentation looks too great. The proportion of politicians and lobbyists will be too high, and I see at best a DC-style microcosm and at worst a Bruxelles-style lobbyist heaven (very likely if only part of the administration moves**). Not the best way to fight corruption. International appeal ? Visitors shall be motivated by politics... unless the cultural proposition exceeds that of, say, a city like Seoul.

- Seoul is close to North Korea, granted. But chances are relationships will change by 2030, and building the equivalent of a new capital city further away may sound like a costly distraction twenty years from now.

- Koreans feel betrayed by politicians and a remote government, and Sejong City is supposed to put the agora back to the center of the country. It may work, but the opposite effect is more than likely : an even more remote government in an even more artificial bubble...

The Songdo concept has its weaknesses but more consistence. The challenge looks much greater here, where the vision appears to be essentially political and top down...

But of course, Korea "can do". And might even, once again, deliver.

Seoul Village 2009

** that could take a big chunk from Jongno-gu and Yeouido : ministries, assemblies, supreme court, presidency... the Washington, D.C. way. If only the bureaucracy moves, the balance of power collapses in favor of lobbyists.

ADDENDUM 20091128

"Sejong City and the beauty of lameduckhood"

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