The nation has recently experienced severe conflicts between local governments over the location of state-promoted projects such as the science-business belt, an international airport in the southeastern region and the relocation of LH Corp., a state-run property development agency.
The sites for these projects have all been chosen but the government needs to tackle the following challenges to prevent the nation from being torn apart again by intense regional rivalry over state-sponsored projects.
The first challenge concerns reforming the way the government promotes large-scale enterprises. Currently, these undertakings are 100 percent financed by the central government. This tends to encourage excessive competition among local governments. To address this problem, it is necessary to require those applying for a state project to shoulder part of the costs.
This requirement for a matching contribution could be tweaked for local governments that are unable to bear part of the costs. To them, the central government can give the option of accepting unpopular facilities, such as a garbage incinerator, in return for being awarded a state-funded enterprise.
It is also necessary to reform the site screening process. Currently, the government initially picks 10 to 20 candidates for a major scheme, shortlists five and then finally chooses one. Rep. Hwang Woo-yea, the new floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party, said he would abolish or change this screening process as it tends to unnecessarily intensify regional competition.
The second challenge is establishing conflict resolution mechanisms. Even after the current approach to promoting state programs is reformed, disputes can still arise between local governments. Therefore it is necessary to set up institutional arrangements to alleviate or resolve them.
Currently, there exist many panels designed to handle discord between government agencies. But the problem is that most of them exist only in name. For instance, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs has not convened its conflict management panel since 2009, even though many clashes have flared up over state plans including the airport project and the relocation of LH Corp.
One reason these existing institutions lack real teeth is that they are not empowered by law. In 2005, the government submitted a bill on the resolution of disputes over public policies. But this bill failed to win Assembly approval.
The ruling GNP and the main opposition Democratic Party said Tuesday they would pursue legislation again to create a conflict resolution committee empowered to arbitrate collisions between local governments. We urge them to start the legislative process without delay.
The third challenge, which is the most difficult one, is to prevent politicians from attempting to win votes by promising rosy development schemes. Many state projects pushed by the incumbent government are in fact campaign pledges made by President Lee Myung-bak and his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.
Korean politicians still tend to promise grand-sounding development programs without studying their feasibility carefully. For instance, Roh confessed he came up with the Sejong City idea simply to win support from voters in Chungcheong provinces.
One way to curb this tendency is to strengthen the manifesto movement. In Korea, voters’ pressure on political parties to announce their electoral manifestos is still weak. Given that general and presidential elections are slated for next year, civic groups need to reinforce their clout and start pressuring political parties to prepare and announce policies.
For their part, political parties should be willing to agree on disclosure of their legislative agenda and future development plans through manifestos long before elections so that voters can closely examine them. They also need to agree to set up a neutral committee to assess the feasibility of their campaign promises. It should also be mandatory for political parties to disclose financing plans when they promise development projects.