The Korea Herald


[Robert J. Fouser] Redrawing subnational boundaries in Korea

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 3, 2023 - 12:43

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Last Monday, National Assembly representative Kim Gi-hyeon, leader of the ruling People Power Party stated that the party supports the city of Gimpo becoming part of Seoul. Kim made the remarks at a meeting to discuss transportation in new cities in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul. He said that the party would push the plan if it received enough public support. The plan has the support of Gimpo Mayor Kim Byeong-soo and other local People Power Party leaders. Mayor Kim said that he would meet Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon soon to discuss the matter.

Chair Kim noted that 85 percent of Gimpo’s workforce works in Seoul and that merging the city into Seoul would facilitate regional cooperation to the benefit of residents. Seoul’s current population is 9,988,000 and adding Gimpo’s 514,000 people would push the city’s population above 10 million until further declines bring it back below that level. It would also increase Seoul’s area from 605 to 882 square kilometers. Chair Kim also argued that other cities in Gyeonggi Province that border Seoul could also be merged into the city, although he declined to give specifics.

Changing the borders of administrative districts is easier said than done. Gimpo could join Seoul in two ways. One is if the legislatures of Gimpo, Seoul and Gyeonggi Province approve the proposal, and the other is if voters in all three places approve it. If approved, the proposal would need final approval from the National Assembly. Already, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has reacted negatively to the idea, and it is difficult to see why residents in other parts of Gyeonggi Province would support a plan that weakens the province’s tax base. The People Power Party’s main reason for raising the idea now is an attempt to boost its popularity in border cities ahead of the National Assembly elections on April 10, 2024.

The debate, however, raises some interesting questions about where to draw boundaries among subnational governments in South Korea and elsewhere. Apart from historical tradition, how should boundaries be drawn?

After the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948, Seoul was the first city to receive province-level status in 1949. This was followed by Busan in 1963, Daegu in 1981, Gwangju in 1986, Daejeon in 1989 and Ulsan in 1997, when the population of each of these cities passed one million. Since Ulsan, however, no other cities with more than one million people have received this status because there are simply too many of them. Goyang, Suwon and Yongin -- all in Gyeonggi Province -- have all surpassed one million. Changwon in South Gyeongsang Province passed one million after absorbing nearby Jinhae and Masan in 2010.

As Korea's population decline accelerates, cities with a population just over one million people will soon fall below that level. In addition to Ulsan, Changwon and Suwon have begun to decline, and Goyang and Yongin have reached a plateau and will most likely begin to decline within the next decade. In the last half of the century, Daejeon and Gwangju will fall below one million.

Any redrawing of subnational boundaries in South Korea must consider the future trajectory of population decline. Subnational units with declining populations face declining local commerce and weakening tax bases as well as tough decisions about how to manage infrastructure that may no longer be needed. In this situation, merging local governments to create larger more viable units could make sense.

In the 2000s, Japan experienced a wave of local government mergers in response to declining populations, particularly in rural areas. The mergers have reduced the duplication of government services and allowed for a more efficient use of tax revenues. In the US, Connecticut and Rhode Island, two small New England states, completely abolished county governments, although counties remain on maps for statistical purposes. In some other places in the US, cities and counties have merged to form a consolidated city-county government.

In the face of declining populations, larger units may be more efficient, but they may inhibit citizen participation in the democratic process. Large organizations are more structured and therefore more distant. Smaller organizations allow for more input, which helps create a sense of belonging among participants. Government is no different.

The idea of merging Gimpo into Seoul will go down in history as a failed political ploy. Instead, politicians should be talking about how to foster democratic engagement among citizens to deepen and strengthen democracy. This usually means that smaller is better.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.