SEJONG – No loud, cheerful celebrations could be found last Wednesday in the planned administrative capital of South Korea, as heavy rain forced people to stay indoors and those who were out in the streets had their faces covered to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
But an atmosphere of hope and anticipation was tangible in this city, some 130 kilometers south of Seoul, which came into being only in 2012. Built from scratch with a grand vision of replacing overcrowded Seoul as the nation’s capital, Sejong may finally see its original purpose realized.
“The city has been continuously improving with new office buildings, apartments, schools and more,” said Park Kyung-sook, a 56-year-old who runs a barber shop just near the Sejong Government Complex, home to scores of central government ministries and agencies.
“If the Blue House and other important government offices move here, I think it’s reasonable to expect the city to pick up more steam and shine.”
Launched as a special self-governing city after the initial capital relocation plan fell through, 8-year-old Sejong is the country’s youngest and fastest-growing city, with more apartments, schools, hospitals and colleges campuses planned in the next several years. The city’s population has more than tripled from 115,388 in 2012 to 350,697 by end of June.
Many residents expect the city and its population to grow even more dramatically, should the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s plan to relocate the capital come to fruition.
“I mean, the president will be coming to town, and is there anything bad about that?” Park added. “People in Seoul might not like that idea, but it’s a huge opportunity for us.”
The heady prospect has already been reflected in skyrocketing property prices. Real estate agents contacted by The Korea Herald said they have struggled to get deals through for the past week, as people hesitate to sell their properties in anticipation of higher valuations.
“Today might be the best day to buy an apartment in Sejong,” said La Hyun-sook, a real estate agent who has been running her office in the city for the past five years.
“The apartment you might be interested in could be listed for a higher price tomorrow, and be even more expensive the next week; if you want anything in Sejong, today’s the last day for a bargain.”
According to the Korea Appraisal Board, Sejong’s apartment prices soared 20 percent from January to mid-July, the sharpest gain of all Korean cities.
La said that Sejong’s property market has reached a whole new level with the prospect of more government offices moving into the city’s vacant areas. Prices for some apartment units rose by more than 100 million won in just a week, she said, as prospective buyers sharply increased, while those willing to sell disappeared.
There are worries too that Sejong may become the target of affluent speculators from elsewhere. Realtor Hwang Yun-hee said far too many people who already own multiple homes have inquired about apartment units recently.
“Based on what I went through so far this year, most of the people who asked about apartment units for sale in Sejong appeared to own at least three or four real estate properties,” Hwang said.
“Business would be good if I get all these deals through, but in a long-term perspective, I’m worried of Sejong turning more of into a gambling arena.”
The sudden interest in Sejong is not good news to people like Jang Duk-hoo, who has dreamed of moving to the city for its neatly organized streets and residential towns.
“Just look at all these parks, clean-cut commercial areas and beautiful apartment complexes, who wouldn’t want to live here?” said Jang, who resides in nearby Daejeon and commutes to Sejong to work as a maintenance manager for an apartment complex. “I really want to move in if possible, but there’s no way I can afford to buy an apartment here at this point.”
Some residents said since Sejong is a young and developing city, there is plenty of room for improvement and talk of a capital transfer should come with plans to supplement the areas where the city is currently failing its citizens.
For instance, residents say that the roads are too narrow, public parking space is scarce for those not working at Cabinet ministries, and public transportation is insufficient. According to the city government, the city runs a total of 285 buses on 62 routes, which equates to one bus per 1,222 people.
For younger residents, the city’s biggest issue is its lack of entertainment options. Sejong does not have much in terms of nightlife or leisure activities, which has forced many people in their 20s and 30s to travel to Daejeon or even Seoul on weekends.
“Just look around, do you see any nightclubs or live music cafes,” said Lee Sun-il, a 27-year-old employee at a coffee shop in Sejong.
“In this ‘no-fun city,’ the best you can get for after-work fun is just a few bottles of soju at nearby restaurants during meals. Think about doing that for 10 years – I’m already sick of it.”
Real estate agents echoed the same view, saying commercial properties were anything but popular in Sejong. Many commercial lots have stayed vacant for months, as people lost interest in Sejong after visiting the city over the weekend.
“There’s nobody on the streets during the weekend,” Hwang said. “Parents take their kids to Seoul for private schools on Fridays and come back on Sunday night, and it’s mostly old people just hanging out in community centers and cafes nearby.”
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org