[OUTLOOK]A semantic debate over capitals

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[OUTLOOK]A semantic debate over capitals

The price of land in the Chungcheong provinces is supposedly skyrocketing. The government-posted land price of a potential candidate site for the new capital city, Yeongi-gun in South Chungcheong province, has risen 82 percent. But it is still uncertain whether the new capital will indeed be in the Chungcheong provinces.
This writer was skeptical from the beginning when the issue of transferring the capital was brought up in the 2002 presidential election. The proposal seemed so overwhelming that I thought it would never happen. I supposed that the affair would end at an appropriate line without making the president look like a fool for having made such a proposal. Contrary to my expectations, however, the proposal was followed up avidly beginning right after the elections. The Blue House masterminded the operation and related bills were passed in the National Assembly.
It does seem, in a way, that the president has a reason to be smug these days. Even the biggest opposition party, which had initially opposed the plan, came to agree with it and helped to pass related bills in the Assembly. Lee Hoi-chang, the presidential candidate for the Grand National Party, had opposed the plan to move the capital city in his election campaign, and he had been voicing the common opinion of his party.
Some Millennium Democrats also opposed the plan but they remained silent because the plan was a campaign strategy of Roh Moo-hyun, their party’s candidate. Yet, both the Grand Nationals and the Millennium Democrats have changed their attitudes and approved the bills for the transfer of the capital city. What happened? The president claims that we should see the opposition parties’ change of mind as a national consensus on transferring the capital city. Is this truly so?
To understand what is really going on behind the scenes, I must disclose a portion of the conversation I had at a dinner with Grand National Party Chairman Choe Byung-yul last November. I asked Mr. Choe what his party intended to do about the government-presented bills on the transfer of the capital. Mr. Choe replied that the Grand National Party would of course support the plan. I then asked whether it was the majority opinion of the party members. It was, the chairman asserted.
Had they not opposed the plan until now, I asked. Have they changed their minds? “No, they haven’t. But we need to get through the general election first. If we oppose the plan to transfer the capital city, we would lose all votes in the Chungcheong provinces,” Mr. Choe said. Do you then plan to pass the bills even when you opposed the policy, I asked him. “Getting the bills passed isn’t everything, you know. We could always stall the plan by holding back the budget. Japan, too, passed similar laws 14 years ago and it still hasn’t gotten anything done. Don’t worry about it,” I was told.
As Mr. Choe avowed, the National Assembly passed the related bills without much ado. No debates in earnest were held over the matter. This is the reality behind the “national consensus” that the president is so emphasizing. This is outrageous.
What is even more ridiculous is the argument over the terms of the plan. It is a joke that the government should insist that it is transferring the “administrative capital city” and that this is different from transferring the “capital city.” The argument was started by a statement by the president. “Transferring the [administrative capital city] is not the same as transferring the capital city. It is only transferring a very small portion of the capital city’s function,” he said in early January.
Then he used the term “capital city” in late January, only to revoke his words in February. Following suit, the opposition parties have announced that they would not oppose the transfer of the “administrative capital city” but would oppose any plans to move the “capital city.”
I looked up the terms in the dictionary just to be sure. The capital city is the city where the central government is located. Therefore, the terms “capital city” and “administrative capital city” are exactly the same thing. So what is this useless and ridiculous argument about?
To summarize, the plan to transfer the capital city was born because of the election and it is still being twisted and pulled around as an object of political bargaining. The plan to transfer the capital city is being fueled right now by the votes in the Chungcheong provinces but what will happen when the voters in Seoul and Gyeonggi province get angry and start making new political demands?
Korea’s politics stands at a point where we can’t even predict how the upcoming general election will turn out. Moreover, who will guarantee that the plan to transfer the capital city, a long-term project which would take some 20 to 30 years, would be followed with consistency? In that period of time, we could see political power change hands some six times in our country.
We should go no further with this project and start discussing the matter from the beginning. We must start with getting our terms straight. It would be more accurate to say we are transferring our capital city instead of transferring our administrative capital city. After we get the term straight, we can all state our opinions. I say nay. There has never been a case in the world of a country with a gross national product per capita of over $10,000 that plucked its capital city out and moved it to another place as if it were a tooth. We should discuss transferring our capital city only after our country is unified.

* The writer is the chief economic correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chang-kyu
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