Sejong City: The story of South Korea's back-up capital

They built it, but did anyone come? Rebecca Townsend reports on the South Korean government's ambitious Sejong City project.

In 2012, key government agencies in South Korea began to move from the capital city of Seoul to Sejong City, 120km to the south. The primary motives behind the move were to decentralise power concentrated in Seoul and spread development opportunities beyond the capital. Almost half of the country’s population lives in the capital region — comprising Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi province — which also produces nearly half of national GDP.

Capital relocation was a major 2002 proposal by then-president Roh Moo-hyun that captured a national mood in favor of greater democratisation as the country continued to move away from past decades of authoritarian government and break-neck economic growth. Victoria University of Wellington senior lecturer of Public Management Wonhyuk Cho described the feeling of South Koreans at the time: “In terms of physiological needs, things are okay. No one was starving. But we need to talk about other things. Let's talk about democratisation, rights, equality, equity, stuff like that.”

Shaky beginnings

From the start, there was strong resistance in Seoul to the idea of the move. Political opposition and a constitutional court judgment against capital relocation meant the initial proposal had to be scaled back to keep the legal capital in Seoul and move selected ministries to what would now be an "administrative city".

As the date for relocation approached, there was also criticism that Sejong City lacked basic social and family attractions. It was anticipated that most officials would commute, while their families remained in Seoul. Victoria University's Cho researched the experience of public officials who transferred to Sejong City, and said many of the early criticisms were correct.

“At first, the city wasn’t really ready in terms of infrastructure and housing. It was a disaster for many people. It’s like if suddenly MBIE moved to Nelson, but my kids were in school and had friends in Wellington. In South Korea, we call it ‘goose-dad’ or ‘goose-mom.’ It means during the weekdays you stay in Sejong, then during the weekend you return to Seoul to spend time with your family. I’m talking about 10,000 employees and their families.”

Yet as time went on, the infrastructure and sense of community gradually improved. “For a while, maybe three or four years, people continued to commute. But people adjusted. The community of public officials, they now have decent schools that they can send their kids to. There’s restaurants and coffee shops. It’s getting better.”

City of the future?

Sejong City is now seen by the government as an opportunity to plan a city for liveability. It is one of South Korea’s two test-bed “smart cities” using data and advanced technologies, including the Internet of Things, to improve the lives of residents and manage urban planning and transport.

But Cho is skeptical. “With smart cities, the Korean government thought, oh, that makes sense to us. We are known for advanced technology, a country of Samsung and LG. But people still don’t know what they are talking about with smart cities. It’s a marketing tool.

“When the government here [in New Zealand] talks about data or data-driven government, they are talking about running the government. In South Korea, they mean both we will run the government and we will run society. We’re not just talking about government or how to serve citizens; we try to engineer society, too. It’s a development state legacy. In terms of smart cities, in Korea it’s not citizen-centred, it’s top-down planning stuff.

“In Sejong City, they adopted the smart work paradigm. But it just means you deal with problems with technology. It’s just a fancy term. Sometimes it’s a myth. There’s nothing substantive about it.”

Cho suggests that people must be at the centre of any smart city future plans. “Digital Makers need to understand people. In any planned city, smart city, relocation, whatever. You talk about restaurants, coffee shops, theatres, concerts. Schools too. Technologies need to understand people.

“But we had this techno-optimism in South Korea — 'technology will solve every problem'. No, technology has to understand people. Otherwise, technology is meaningless.”

The author's travel to South Korea as part of the World Journalists Conference 2019 was funded by the Journalists Association of Korea.