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[News Focus] Sejong an alternative to overcrowded, overly expensive Seoul?

Ruling party revives a 16-year-old capital relocation plan amid growing public outcry over Seoul home prices

An aerial view of a residential district in Sejong on July 27 (Yonhap)
An aerial view of a residential district in Sejong on July 27 (Yonhap)

Decentralization has been an important yet neglected issue in S. Korea, where half of the country’s population of 51.8 million people live in Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan area, which accounts for 11 percent of the nation’s total land area.

In the early 2000s, iconoclastic president Roh Moo-hyun envisioned a new capital to be built near the geographic center of the country, but he was stopped by the Constitutional Court, which famously ruled that Seoul being the capital of the country is in the “customary constitution.”

In 2020, population increases and skyrocketing home prices in Seoul have led to the ruling Democratic Party of Korea to revive the old plan, making Sejong, a city roughly 130 kilometers south of Seoul and built during the Roh administration, the administrative capital of Korea.

“Currently, 97 municipalities across the country are on the verge of dissolution, while half of the population lives in Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan area,” said Rep. Woo Won-shik, who leads an in-house group of lawmakers in charge of the project.

“By completing Sejong’s (initial purpose) as the administrative capital, we can achieve a more balanced regional development while elevating Seoul into a global business center,” he added. 

‘Seoul like New York, Sejong like Washington ’

Under the plans shaping up within the liberal faction, Seoul is envisioned to transform into a global business hub city while Sejong will be an administrative center, with party officials pointing to New York and Washington in the United States as example case.

Named after the King Sejong the Great of the Joseon Dynasty, Sejong came to being in 2012 with about 100,000 citizens, as the Roh administration pushed for parts of the plan that were not affected by the Constitutional Court ruling.

Central ministries and agencies moved from Seoul to Sejong in phases, but the scheme has been left half-done. Ministry officials complain that they have to spend half the day traveling back and forth to Seoul where all important meetings take place. The average price of an apartment in Seoul is twice that of an apartment in Sejong.

To give Seoul’s remaining administrative functions to the southern city, the ruling party aims to present a road map by the end of this year, which could include relocations of the presidential office and the National Assembly. The plan will also address legitimate ways to execute the administration capital transfer, such as a constitutional amendment, referendum or enactment of a special law, Rep. Woo said.

Rep. Lee Nak-yon, who leads the party, suggested holding a referendum to make a decision on the issue alongside the next presidential election that falls on March 9, 2022 if the party fails to reach an agreement with the main opposition United Future Party to introduce a special law that enables Cheong Wa Dae and the National Assembly to relocate to Sejong.

The opposition party was initially opposed to the transfer plan, calling it a trick to calm public outcry over the government’s policies that have failed to bring under control soaring home prices, especially in Seoul and surrounding areas.

But some lawmakers representing constituencies in the North and South Chungcheong provinces said the party needed to join discussions.

“It is not wise to avoid discussions that we will face anyhow. It appears that the extinction of provincial cities is inevitable if the current trend continues. We need a serious approach and debate,” said Rep. Chung Jin-suk, who represents Gongju, Buyeo and Cheongyang in South Chungcheong Province.

The Chungcheong provinces have been a swing-vote area in Korea, meaning the United Future Party opposing a plan seen beneficial to the region could backfire in the next presidential election.

“I have the willingness to discuss measures to develop Sejong City itself, not the relocation plan, within the framework of law,” said the party’s Floor Leader Joo Ho-young.

Public appears divided

In a public survey conducted on 500 adults a day after Democratic Party Floor Leader Kim Tae-nyeon first proposed moving remaining government offices and the parliament to Sejong during his speech to the 21st National Assembly on July 20, 53.9 percent of respondents were in favor of the plan. By region, Gwangju and the North and South Jeolla provinces showed the greatest support with 68.8 percent, followed by Daejeon, Sejong and the North and South Chungcheong provinces with 66.2 percent.

According to a Gallup Korea poll of 1,100 adults across the country, 49 percent of respondents say Seoul should remain the capital of the country, while 42 percent supported Sejong as a new administrative capital.

By Park Han-na (