SEJONG CITY, South Korea — On this country’s most controversial tract of land, 10,000 laborers are laying the groundwork for an ambitious new city that will either drive growth outside the overpopulated capital or end up as an ill-conceived waste of money.
Sejong City resembles a construction site, not a boomtown — orange-painted cranes make up the skyline and dump trucks rumble over makeshift bridges — but next month, South Korean officials will begin moving here in droves.
They’ll come as part of a long-contested plan that essentially divides the South Korean government in half, with the relocation of 36 ministries and agencies to a built-from-scratch bureaucrat’s paradise that was once a patchwork of peach farms.
But even as the shift begins, officials aren’t sure whether it’s a good idea. If Sejong develops as planned, with a population of 500,000 by 2030, it could rebalance power in a country long dominated by the megalopolis capital of Seoul. But critics — including President Lee Myung-bak, who didn’t attend a recent launch ceremony here — say it’s crazy to set parts of the administration 75 miles apart.
“It is not just inefficient to move to Sejong," said Chung Un-chan, the South Korean prime minister in 2009 and 2010 who served under Lee and was against the idea. “It will be almost paralyzing for government operations."
The decade-old Sejong plan seems to reflect a change in the way South Korea thinks about its development: As the country has reached First World status, experts say, its people have become less concerned about the rate of growth and more concerned about who benefits.
They bemoan not only the broadening income gap, but also the geographical gap between Seoul and the rest of the country. The greater Seoul area, in the northwest, has half the country’s population and half of its businesses. Politicians have tried, with little success, to feed growth in farther-flung regions with tax incentives and with a plan for 10 “innovation cities" as breeding grounds for industry and private research.
“There have been, like, 500 policies to help rebalance the country, and they have all failed," said Yook Dong-il, a professor at Chungnam National University, a 15-minute drive from Sejong. “But they have all been micro-policies, nothing as big as the plan with Sejong."
Sejong began as a grandiose 2002 campaign pledge from future president Roh Moo-hyun, who wanted to win voters in a critical swing region and promised to relocate the capital entirely. Some in Seoul criticized the idea, but others figured the city could thrive just as well without the government.
Still, the plan soon became a controversy. A constitutional court ruled that the capital should stay put. Roh watered down his plan by half; his residence, for instance, as well as parliament and some key ministries, would stay put. Then Roh’s successor, Lee, tried to stop even this Capital Lite plan and proposed an unpopular alternative — calling for Sejong to become an education and industry hub, with conglomerates such as Samsung and Lotte swapped in for the government — that key members of his party didn’t support.
The blueprint for Sejong, then, is less than what Roh initially wanted and just the opposite of what Lee wants. Roh, who committed suicide in 2009, had a “philosophy of balanced national development," said a former prime minister, Lee Hae-chan.
The current president, formerly the Seoul mayor, once pledged to stop Sejong’s development even if he had to “mobilize the military."