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 did not 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 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 stirred 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 that scaled-back plan and proposed an unpopular alternative — calling for Sejong to become an education and industry hub, with conglomerates such as Samsung and Lotte instead of the government — which 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 Seoul’s mayor, once pledged to block Sejong’s development even if he had to “mobilize the military.”
Sejong has grown into a $20 billion project that isn’t so easy to get to. A high-speed train connects Seoul and a station north of Sejong in 38 minutes. But it still takes 25 minutes by cab to get to the city itself, and cabs are hard to find. Buses come just once an hour, though officials promise transportation will quickly improve as demand increases.
A few brand-new apartment high-rises at the edge of town will house most of the first wave of transplants: 900 bureaucrats next month and 4,000 by the end of the year. The neighborhood, cut off from the massive construction site by a two-story barrier, has a grocery store, a handful of restaurants and six schools. But Sejong has no hospital, no movie theater and no museums.
A recent government poll indicated that 12 percent of relocating bureaucrats will commute from Seoul, sparking concern that Sejong — like Australia’s purpose-built capital, Canberra — could become a weekend ghost town.
“It will take about 20 years” before the city stops feeling like a construction site, said Song Ki-sup, chairman of the Multifunctional Administrative City Construction Agency, which is responsible for Sejong’s development.
Sejong, for now, has one attraction: a stylish three-story public relations office, all curvy walkways and mood lighting, that shows off the vision for a great city. There, visitors can read about the design contests to build Sejong’s apartment buildings and about the New Age names for their green spaces (one complex will have a “Healing Zone”). A built-to-scale model of Sejong offers a view of main roadways, which loop the city, and the main government building, with a garden on its roof. The timeline for Sejong’s development begins in 2003 with the “basic plan” and moves quickly into the future.
By 2015, the city is to have libraries, a sports stadium and hotels.
By 2020, it will have department stores, a business park and a population of 200,000.
By 2030, it will have 500,000 people and be a self-sustaining city.
“We will find out if it works,” Song said. “But our aim is to build a city where everybody aspires to live.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.