Looking for tourist information, we approached the front gate of the ministry, where a security guard directed us to Sector 6 ― roughly in the middle of the huge complex. From the car window, the connected structures looked a bit like an airport terminal; from above, they are designed to look like an Oriental dragon in flight.
After reaching the General Information Office, we handed our IDs to the security guards.
“Why are you here?” one of them asked, friendly but puzzled.
“We’re here for sightseeing.”
“What sights?” he replied.
The complex itself is an arresting sight: At eight levels above the ground and 3.5 kilometers from head to tail, it may be the longest such building in the world. According to Kim Jong-yul, who works for building management at the complex, efforts are underway to get the structure registered with UNESCO.
What makes the complex all the more impressive is that, just five years ago, it was a construction site being carved out of a hilly stretch of farmland.
With the opening of the third and final phase, the midsection of the dragon, in December 2014 ― housing the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, Legislative Office, and Postal Service Headquarters ― the complex became home to 37 government organizations and about 13,000 public servants.
Birth of a ‘mini-capital’
Originally conceived of in 2002 as a new capital city during the presidential campaign of Roh Moo-hyun, who was wooing voters in the swing province of South Chungcheong, the plan was later opposed by his successor Lee Myung-bak and then scaled down, though not canceled, thanks partly to current President Park Geun-hye, who insisted on sticking to the plan.
|The Sejong City branch of The National Library of Korea (Paul Wilson/The Korea Herald)|
The not-quite-capital, as it became, was named after King Sejong ― a scholar-king who reigned in the 15th century and introduced Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. Adored by Koreans, Sejong has also loaned his name to an arts center, a main boulevard, a research institute and a university in the country.
The city covers 465 square kilometers, sandwiched between the cities of Cheonan, Cheongju, Daejeon and Gongju. While the nondescript township of Jochiwon has become the train hub for Sejong and the home of City Hall Annex No. 1, it’s around the complex ― the backbone of the Multifunctional Administrative City ― that apartment towers are popping up like toadstools.
According to the MAC Construction Agency website, the 73-square-kilometer MAC won’t be completely finished until 2030. By then, it will have cost 22.5 trillion won ($20.6 billion) ― about double what has been spent thus far.
The construction agency also states, rather cryptically, that the ring shape of the complex will be like a “doughnut, but with ‘dough’ still in the center.” This “dough” will supposedly make for short commutes, convenient public transit and natural disaster preparedness.
With the civil servants ― many of whom were reluctant to move from the Seoul area ― still settling in, tourism considerations are still gathering momentum. Yet the architectural novelty of the complex, a futuristic colossus standing self-consciously in the Korean countryside, may eventually draw crowds to the top of its buildings and raised walkways, which will be decorated from start to finish with lawns and gardens.
|A man-made beach awaits sunbathers at Lake Park, Sejong City (Paul Wilson/The Korea Herald)|
A roof of its own
Kim with building management arrived at the gate and led us to a side building containing a model of the complex. He apologized that we couldn’t visit the roof, which was closed for the winter, but reassured us that tours would start again in March (reservations can be made at www.chungsa.go.kr; Korean only).
When they start, the tours ― once in the morning, once in the afternoon ― will be limited to one of the three sections of the Complex, as not all of the gardens have been landscaped. The section on show could be the most stunning, though, as it features the two longest walkways of the Complex, both of which cross over Bangchukcheon Stream.
Among the sites recommended by Kim were the local branch of The National Library of Korea and Lake Park, which has two lakeside “beaches.” For panoramic views, visit Milmaru Observatory (free entrance). As Sejong City is still a work in progress, repeat visitors are likely to be met with altered and expanded views of this test-tube mini-metropolis.
Though there’s a dearth of eating establishments on the immediate vicinity of the complex, several restaurants have set up shop in the outskirts, including Momiga Eojuk (www.momiga.co.kr; (044) 863-1258). Though eojuk, the name of the signature dish, translates as “fish porridge,” it’s more like a thick, creamy stew. Said to be based on an old recipe, this spicy dish is made with a puree of oriental herbs and catfish, carp, snakehead and minnows cooked in a cauldron. Chives are sprinkled on top of the stew, which is served with noodles and rice that guests can mix in themselves.
|Eojuk (fish stew) is the signature dish of Momiga Eojuk in Sejong City. (Paul Wilson/The Korea Herald)|
Momiga serves the local makgeolli Sejong Boksagol, which holds its own against other regional varieties.
Buses depart from Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal and Nambu Bus Terminal about twice hourly for Sejong City or Administrative Complex. The journey takes 1 hour and 30 minutes, and tickets range in price from 8,300 won to 11,000 won. Visit www.kobus.co.kr/web/eng/index.jsp or www.busterminal.or.kr.
Trains from Seoul Station to Jochiwon Station take 1 hour and 30 minutes (on the Saemaeul Line) or 2 hours (on the Mugunghwa Line); tickets cost about 10,000 won. Visit www.letskorail.com.
Local buses including Nos. 550 and 551 link Jochiwon Station to the Administrative Complex.
By Matthew C. Crawford (email@example.com)