Understandably, the underlying assumption at first was that trips between Seoul and Sejong would be occasional: Ministers and government officials would stay in Sejong, and come to Seoul from time to time to attend important meetings and to discuss key national issues. Not a big deal, they must have thought.
At any rate, there is a useful tool called video conferencing available.
People in the two cities can be hooked up and have a quick conference. Problems are solved and decisions made. This is the way office life should be in the 21st century.
But it looks like that assumption was wrong.
On any given day, so many officials and employees are “on the road,” away from their offices, and spend their time in Seoul. Of course, this is not their fault. In a sense, they are also victims of life torn between the two cities. As long as all key decision makers are in Seoul and all political movers and shakers are in Yeouido, the officials are forced to pack up and hit the road.
Some inconveniences are inevitable during any transition period. But the way it seems signals that the problem is in fact more structural than commuter complaints and is not likely to be reduced in any foreseeable future. Simply, there is no sign or plan that the decision makers and major events are also relocating to Sejong City.
As it currently stands, the new administrative city is merely acting as a base camp for activities in Seoul. It is no secret that many agencies have their Seoul offices under the guise of many different names. This grand construction plan was conceived and implemented to mitigate the chronic Seoul-centric social phenomenon, but ironically, what is transpiring only shows the dominance of the capital and in a sense solidifies its stature.
The limited accessibility and the split system have thrown foreign envoys and foreign businessmen off balance. They can certainly make trips to Sejong City if they need to, but a four-hour round trip should make any such visits occasional at most. At a time when closer consultation with foreign counterparts is becoming ever more important, the state of the reality moves backward.
True, to overcome this problem video conferencing has been touted as an alternative from the beginning. ICT offers a useful tool but anyone who uses it also realizes its limitations.
Video conferencing is convenient but its connectivity and deliverability are arguably nowhere near as good as a face-to-face meeting. It may work better for some business transactional issues, but not so well for issues of national concern where subtle nuances and tones can make all the differences. Anyone who is aware of the importance of nuances and tones in conversation in the Korean society would readily see the inherent limitation of the video conference alternative in this particular context.
So, unless all key governmental functions and, notably, the National Assembly are relocated to the new city (which seems almost impossible), the structural problem will remain unsolved. From the view of tight coordination and enhanced efficiency, the rift from the split system may take its toll, slowly but steadily.
It is really interesting to see how many countries that have introduced a second capital or an administrative city have also left the new city dependent upon the original megacity. How many foreign examples are there where officials are perennially on the road? Upon a cursory look, there are very few, if any.
I visit Sejong City every now and then. For casual travelers like me, the trip is a pleasant two-hour bus ride to a rural town. But to many people who have to travel on a regular basis ― even daily ― it is a totally different story. The money, time and national energy being poured into this two city system is just enormous. And the costs are still mounting.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at Seoul National University. ― Ed.