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The government’s new nest

More government ministries move to Sejong City; questions remain unanswered

The government office buildings and apartments, some still under construction, in Sejong City (Yonhap News)
The government office buildings and apartments, some still under construction, in Sejong City (Yonhap News)

Seo Jang-seok, a director of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, is having a different winter this year. He is preparing to move alone to Sejong City when his workplace, now in the government complex in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, relocates to the new administrative city by year-end.

“I have no choice but to leave my family for the time being. My wife is working in Seoul, and my 18-year-old daughter, who is taking the university entrance exam next year, doesn’t want to change her living environment,” Seo said.

Sejong City, carved out of South Chungcheong Province, is located in the geographic center of South Korea some 120 kilometers south of Seoul. And with the commute from the capital and the surrounding area taking 2 to 2.5 hours, the majority of government employees are making the move.

Stories of the relocation blues are flooding MOTIE, one of the biggest ministries, with about 1,120 employees.

“My colleagues’ biggest concern is uncertainties in living and working in a city away from Seoul, where they have lived and worked for years,” said Kim, a MOTIE official who declined to be identified by his full name.

Seoul and its greater area are home to about half the South Korean population. That urban density was the main reason former President Roh Moo-hyun broke ground in 2007 to build a new competitive city away from Seoul by relocating all central government agencies except diplomatic and security-related ministries and agencies.

The scope of the relocation was scaled down from the original plan, which included relocation of the Blue House and the National Assembly, after the objection by the Constitutional Court in 2004. The court dismissed the plan to build another administrative “capital,” ruling that Seoul is the only capital according to the constitution.

Former President Lee Myung-bak, elected in 2007, tried to overturn the Sejong City development plan in 2009, but the National Assembly saved the plan in 2010 in a vote.

Population growth in Sejong

For the growth of a city, above all, inflow of human capital is critical. Since 2007, the government has been building the city’s infrastructure, including 200,000 homes, with a 28 trillion won ($20 billion) budget.

The relocation of ministries and state agencies followed from 2012. Last year, five ministries including the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and the Ministry of Land, Transport and Infrastructure, the Prime Minster’s Office and six state agencies moved to the Sejong government complex. 

Staff of the Ministry of Health and Welfare carry items to be transported to Sejong City in Seoul on Friday.(Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Staff of the Ministry of Health and Welfare carry items to be transported to Sejong City in Seoul on Friday.(Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
This year, five more ministries, including MOTIE, will relocate to Sejong City by Dec. 29 starting Friday. The four other ministries prepping for the move this winter are the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism; Ministry of Education; Ministry of Health and Welfare; and Ministry of Employment and Labor.

“Korea’s administrative center will shift to Sejong from Seoul and Gwacheon when the second-stage movement is completed by year-end. Ten out of 17 ministries and 14 governmental agencies will function in the Sejong government complex from next year,” said Cho Sung-hwan from the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.

The inflow of government employees to Sejong for the second consecutive year boosts the population of the area, which was once composed of pure paddy fields. The population of the city, which stood only at 875 in 2011, is expected to reach 32,000 by the end of this year, according to the Multifunctional Administrative City Construction Agency.

The agency expects the new administrative city’s population to reach 500,000 by 2030 and evolve into a self-sufficient city creating jobs and attracting human capital.

Debate on Sejong’s future

The landscape of Sejong is changing as quickly as its population, but there is a long road ahead in building a “city of happiness” ― Sejong’s nickname ― mainly because Sejong is an incomplete administrative city without the National Assembly, different from other model administrative overseas like Canberra in Australia.

“It is too early to tell if Sejong City will lead to balanced regional development, but it seems to be difficult for Sejong to evolve into an administration-driven self-sufficient city if the National Assembly and the Blue House continue to stay in Seoul,” said a professor from Sejong University under the condition of anonymity.

High-ranking officials from the five ministries that relocated to Sejong last year have expressed fatigue and inefficiency, caused by partial relocation of the government’s administrative functions.

In reality, there are a number of officials who only stay in Sejong for one or two days at most as they must still carry out their duties with lawmakers at the National Assembly, join events in Seoul and go abroad.

After hearing from their peers already there, about 20 percent of 4,888 government employees who were supposed to move to Sejong with the relocation of their workplace at the year-end decided not to, according to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Security and Public Administration in July.

Some critics proposed using the nation’s advanced information and technology to overcome inefficiencies in the administrative decision-making process.

“I propose that the government develop four cities with administrative functions ― Seoul, Sejong, Gwacheon and Daejeon ― as smart cities that are interconnected via cyber space,” said Lee Sang-dae of the Gyeonggi Research Institute.

“I believe Korea’s opinion leaders will find better solutions for improving Sejong City, whose success will be linked to the continued development of the nation.”

Relocation will be more often heard in Korea for the next few years. Besides Sejong, Korea is also developing 10 smaller-scale cities, dubbed “innovation cities,” to house 175 public organizations in the capital area with the same mission as the Sejong development project: decentralization of power and balanced regional development.

“A social consensus is forming for the mission of balanced regional development with emerging of new cities with inflow of government employees and public workers, but it will take some time to turn the ‘relocation blues’ into ’relocation buzz,’ ” said Park Young-kyu from Samsung Economic Research Institute in his report. 

The history of Sejong City

2004: The Constitutional Court blocks the capital city relocation project of President Roh Moo-hyun

2005: The plan is changed to that of constructing an administrative city (to be named Sejong City)

2006: The master plan for the development of Sejong City is announced

2007: A groundbreaking ceremony for the city’s construction is held

2009: Changes to the Sejong City development plans are proposed under the Lee Myung-bak administration

2010: The amendment proposal fails to pass a vote by the National Assembly

2012: The Sejong City government is launched and the first stage of the relocation of governmental agencies is completed

By Seo Jee-yeon and Park Hyong-ki