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South Korea Proposes a Capital Change

Times Staff Writer

The traffic is notorious. The air is toxic. Real estate prices are among the most ridiculously inflated in the world.

Residents and visitors alike can recite a long litany of complaints about Seoul, a city of 10 million that is as sprawling as Los Angeles and as congested in areas as Mexico City. So the South Korean government has come up with a novel solution: move.

This week, an evaluation committee designated a patch of land 70 miles to the south as the likely future capital of South Korea. The idea is that the seat of government would move between 2007 and 2030 -- an endeavor estimated to cost at least $40 billion.

The impetus for the move came from President Roh Moo Hyun’s campaign in 2002. But like many campaign promises, nobody took this one seriously until the committee named the new site in rural North Chungchong province as its first choice.

The plan is supposed to be finalized next month, although the mayor of Seoul and others have threatened to take to the courts to block it.

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The designated capital-to-be of the world’s 12th-largest economy is in Yeongi County, just outside the small city of Kongju. What’s there to recommend it? Nothing. Most of the designated land is covered with rice paddies. Or as the Lonely Planet guidebook to South Korea says of the region, there is “nothing to hold your interest for long.”

It was precisely the idea of the tabula rasa that appealed to the evaluation committee, which wanted to start from scratch so as to avoid the errors of urban planning made in Seoul.

“The main focus is on building an environmentally friendly city. We want it to be like a garden city, but an intelligent city from the standpoint of computer networking,” said Kwon Yong Woo, a professor of urban geography who headed the committee.

In this utopian city -- the name of which has yet to be decided -- there would be townhouses and low-rise apartments instead of the chockablock concrete high rises that shut out the sunlight in the current capital. So that the 500,000 or so anticipated residents don’t feel the need to flee to Seoul on weekends, the planners want to build museums, theaters and parks.

“We want to emphasize cultural attractions so that outsiders will come into the city,” Kwon said.

The concept of sticking a capital out in the boonies is not unlike that of Australia’s Canberra or Brazil’s Brasilia -- or for that matter Washington, which was created out of a swamp.

The last major relocation of a capital was the shift from Bonn to Berlin, which started after the reunification of Germany in 1990. But this move would turn the logic of what happened in Germany on its head, as the South Korean capital would be moving farther away from communist North Korea.

Although Korean unification by no means appears imminent, many people here believe it will happen before 2030 -- in which case the capital might have to be moved somewhere between Seoul and Pyongyang.

“The new capital is unsuitable for a reunified Korea,” editorialized the conservative Chosun Ilbo on Monday. The newspaper predicted that if reunification took place before the completion of the move, “the new capital construction site would fall into vast ruin ... [and become] an ugly monument to a past government.”

The fight over the move is just gearing up and is expected to be heated. During a debate Thursday, Roh bitterly denounced critics of the change as “vested interests who are concentrated around the seat of power in the metropolis.”

Roh wants the government to start purchasing the land next year and to begin construction in 2007. The first ministries would move in 2012.

The conservative opposition in the National Assembly has denounced the plan and called for a public referendum on whether the capital should move. The problem is that the assembly approved the move in a little-noticed vote that took place in December -- not coincidentally, in the run-up to legislative elections in which North Chungchong province was hotly contested.

Embarrassed assemblymen are now claiming that they voted only to study the idea, not to do it.

Polls published this week in major newspapers here showed that slightly more than half the population opposed the move. The reasons have less to do with the possibility of reunification than with the potentially negative effect on their principal investments -- homes they own in Seoul. A disproportionate 46% of South Koreans live in the capital or its environs. Apartment prices have risen 70% since 2000.

The degree to which everything from politics to culture in South Korea revolves around Seoul cannot be underestimated. Historians say the reason is a Confucian tradition of strong central government, which has meant that anybody who wanted to be somebody had to move to the capital.

Among those areas of South Korea that suffered was North Chungchong province.

Oh Young Hee, the mayor of Kongju, estimates that the city’s population has dropped by half to 140,000 since the early 1970s.

“People around here had a saying: ‘If you want your child to succeed, you have to send him to Seoul,’ ” Oh said. “Now if you go out in the countryside, you will see many old couples and not many young people.”

As the mayor, she is predictably among the enthusiasts for relocating the capital. She can recite the many little-known virtues of the region -- from the clean air and natural beauty to the fact that it produces the best chestnuts in South Korea.

But most important, the mayor adds, “This move is a way to achieve balanced and equal development of Korea.”


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