Balanced regional development has been a key objective in national administration for decades. But each time the government makes a decision on the location of any major state project, competition among candidate cities and provinces become so severe that it looks like the nation is just falling apart.
As the central city of Daejeon has been selected as the location for a “science-business belt,” a complex of basic science institutes and related business facilities, a tsunami of protests is sweeping the nation. Some local administration chiefs went on hunger strike, others shaved their heads and angry National Assemblymen threatened a “civil disobedience” movement.
Only last month, the government withheld its plan to build a new international airport in a southeastern location after Busan and an alliance of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province mounted fierce contests to bring it to Gadeok Island and Miryang, respectively. Miryang is part of South Gyeongsang Province but the northerners favored it for its easy access from Daegu.
The duel between Jinju in South Gyeongsang and Jeonju in North Jeolla over the relocation of the state-run LH Corp. ended with the victory of the former. Before their merger, the Korea Land Corp. had planned to move to Jeonju and the Korea Housing Corp. to Jinju under the government’s scheme to redistribute state functions for “balanced regional development.” Their merger into LH Corp. naturally ignited the cut-throat contest between the two cities and their provinces. The government offered to move the National Pension Service to Jeonju but enraged officials and residents would not listen.
These rather pathetic scenes have several causes, but local administrators and politicians are the first to blame, while the waning authority of the central government under a presidency in an apparent lame-duck phase is worsening the situation. For elected mayors, governors and Assemblymen, a successful bid to house major state facilities to their constituencies means everything for their political ambitions.
With little objective consideration of natural conditions and economic feasibilities, they make bids for state projects financed almost entirely by the state and drive residents into heated invitation campaigns. It sharply contrasts the cases of such unwelcome projects as nuclear waste storage facilities. Whenever their bidding is turned down and other location in another province is chosen, they instantly claim a “political decision.” Hunger strikes follow, along with the bizarre ritual of shaving heads.
The science-business belt is a relatively big project envisaging overall investment of around 3.5 trillion won for a heavy ion linear accelerator and a cluster of basic science institutes. Daejeon was chosen, as we understand, primarily because of the existence of the Daedeok Science Town nearby. Daedeok, started in the 1970s, currently houses numerous public and private research facilities assuring synergy effects with the projected science complex.
However, officials of rival cities including Gwangju, Daegu and Ulsan suspect that the government picked Daejeon to secure Chungcheong votes for the elections next year. The conspiracy theory has flimsy grounds, but President Lee Myung-bak is partly responsible for the confusion.
An opponent of the controversial Sejong administrative city project, he had proposed to establish a science-business town there instead. As the legislation to change the Sejong City project was foiled, the president withdrew his offer and asked a group of scientists to start searching for the right location for the science complex.
The president should now push the science-business belt project with enthusiasm and sincerity, and without an iota of political consideration ― it is unnecessary as he is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term. The demonstrating mayors, governors and Assemblymen should please go back to their original duties.