South Korea ponders new site for capital

Committee recommends move out of congested Seoul to a rural area

July 11, 2004|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEOUL, South Korea - The traffic is notorious. The air is toxic. Real estate prices are among the most ridiculously inflated in the world.

Residents and visitors 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 parts as Mexico City. So the South Korean government has come up with a solution: move.

Last week, an evaluation committee designated a patch of land 60 miles to the south as the likely future capital of South Korea. The idea is that the seat of government will move between 2007 and 2030 - an endeavor expected 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.

To be final in August

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

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 puts it, 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," said Kwon Yong Woo, a professor of urban geography who led the committee. "We want it to be like a garden city, but an intelligent city from the standpoint of computer networking."

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.

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.

Not unified thinking

The last major relocation of a capital was the shift from Bonn to Berlin, which started after the reunification of Germany in 1990. However, this move would turn the logic of what happened in Germany on its head as the South Korean capital is 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 last week. 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. 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."

The president 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 referendum on whether the capital should move.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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