[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Politics and trains

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Politics and trains

The era of high-speed trains in Korea begins on April 1 this year. The completion of the long-awaited project has yet to stir much enthusiasm, perhaps because the public is cynically waiting for technical problems to delay the start. Once started, however, high-speed trains will forever change the perception of geography, which will have a direct effect on the relationship between Seoul and the provinces in the future.
The history of high-speed trains in Japan offers some insight into what might happen in Korea. The first high-speed trains began running from Tokyo to Osaka in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. The trains linked Japan’s two largest cities together, but they also linked smaller cities with nearby larger cities. Since the mid-1970s, the high-speed train network has gradually spread across the country and is continuing to grow. As the network has grown, the trains have become faster. The 1964 four-hour run between Tokyo and Osaka now takes two and a half hours.
High-speed trains have altered the perception of locality in Japan. Traditionally, locality centered on the prefecture. Most prefectures are rooted in the feudal domains of the Edo period (1603-1868) and most prefectures have a main city that serves as the administrative, economic, and cultural center of the prefecture. The spread of high-speed trains has created a broad regional perception of locality. The main city in each region has become an economic and cultural magnet that has gradually weakened the role of prefectural centers.
The same process has helped Tokyo strengthen its hold on the economic and cultural life of Japan. The closer Tokyo gets, the easier it is to make day trips, which obviates the need for a permanent presence in the regional and prefectural centers. The concentration of people, money, and information in Tokyo, combined with the decline in opportunities elsewhere, makes it the place to be for career development.
Compared with Japan, the concentration of national life in Korea’s capital is more serious. The Seoul area has nearly half the population of Korea, whereas the Tokyo area has only a third. By all other measures as well, Seoul has greater dominance over Korea than Tokyo has over Japan. If high-speed trains contributed to extending Tokyo’s dominance over Japan, will they do the same for Korea?
The question is more complex than it seems. With almost half the population living in Seoul and its suburbs, concentration may have reached a limit imposed by economic and political reality. Tokyo, by contrast, was nowhere close to reaching this point when the high-speed rail network opened and began to grow. For concentration to continue, Seoul must offer decent jobs and affordable housing, but employment creation has slowed and housing costs have yet to decline substantially. Tokyo has borne the brunt of economic restructuring-induced unemployment in recent years, but housing costs have declined dramatically from their bubble-era highs. The decline has attracted people back into the center of the city after years of a steady decline in population.
As long as the limit on further concentration in Seoul holds, the era of high-speed trains offers a chance to halt a process that once seemed irreversible. A chance does not imply inevitability, and the window of opportunity is not large. To seize the chance, regional cities need to develop people-attracting institutions that entice people out of the Seoul area and surrounding localities.
Plans to move the administrative capital to the Daejeon area take on a new meaning in the era of the high-speed trains. With easy access to the most populated parts of the country, the new capital would become a nationwide people-attracting place. Though many existing jobs would be moved from Seoul, many new jobs would be created in the new capital. This would weaken other regional cities, in the same way that regional cities weakened prefectural centers in Japan, but Seoul would be weakened more than the regional centers. For this to work, however, the new capital will have to be on the high-speed train line so people can transit there conveniently.
Education plays a key role in attracting people to a place. Smaller cities with high schools that select students through entrance examinations may suddenly find that families are eager to move from Seoul to send their children to those competitive high schools. In the 1990s, Gyeonggi Province attracted families from Seoul for this reason, only to see them move back after the entrance examinations were stopped. To take advantage of this possibility, competitive magnet schools in regional cities should be developed.
Things could go the other way, as the Japanese experience shows. The historic chance to halt ― or perhaps even reverse ― the concentration in Seoul has emerged from a curious mix of capital-moving politics and high-speed trains, and it is waiting to be seized.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.

by Robert J. Fouser
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