[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]What reasons to change capitals?Amid the grind of negative news since the beginning of the year, details of plans for moving the administrative capital from Seoul are slowly emerging. The most recent set of rumors has it that an area southwest of Daejeon is the most likely candidate for a new capital city that will eventually hold several hundred thousand people. The debate over the new capital has stirred much controversy, including several heated exchanges in the presidential debates, but so far they have focused on the reasons for or against the move, rather than on where the new capital should be or what it should look like.
A look at a 1903 and a 2003 map of the world would show that most national capitals are the same now as they were then. The most notable differences among large nations is the change from St. Petersburg to Moscow and from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia. The major powers of Europe all have the same capitals today as they did in 1903, while a number of regional capitals in Eastern Europe have now become national capitals. The same holds true for much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, where colonial capitals became national capitals upon independence. Divisions and reunifications of nations move the capitals as a comparison between a 1955 and a 2003 map of the world would reveal. Germany united in Berlin and Vietnam in Hanoi, with Korea and China remaining divided.
Throughout history, capitals have moved because of sudden changes in the ruling order. New leaders have built new capitals to establish their legitimacy and to weaken resistance from the old order. Expanding empires have built new capitals to reflect the new, often imaginary, geography of imperial grandeur. Newly formed states have built capitals to assert their independence and unite the nation geographically.
Brasilia and Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, are the two notable historical exceptions to the usual forces driving a change of capitals; they were built for the same reason that people want to move the administrative capital out of Seoul: to promote balanced national development. Unlike Korea, however, these capital cities were built in sparsely-populated areas of geographically large nations to promote the development of the hinterland.
The current discussion in Korea is about reducing the dominance of Seoul rather than on moving people to an underdeveloped region to spur growth. This makes the current discussion in Korea unique.
Most planned new capital cities, whether ancient or modern, end up becoming great laboratories of urban experimentation. New ways of organizing space and new forms of building can be realized; grand structures that ordinarily would not be built can come to life. The building, from first phases of planning to the installation of public art, involves the finest artistic minds the age has to offer. This is why tourists flock to planned capitals past and present: Kyoto, St. Petersburg, and Washington.
Few Koreans want to spend the money to build an impressive new capital city at this time. The country remains divided and memories of the economic crisis in 1997 are still raw. Building a functional new city may win more support now, but the results will be deeply disappointing later. At worst, a collection of second-rate concrete structures southwest of Daejeon could turn out to be a national embarrassment. The history of public building in Korea suggests caution, as changes in the budget and corruption along the way whittle away at good intentions.
Deep down, there is little passion for moving the capital from Seoul now because there is nothing to symbolize. Balanced national development does not stir the passions needed to build a proud new capital. A new capital city in the geographic center of a reunified Korea, for example is an idea that would stir such passion. Other decentralization policies would be a better choice now.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser