[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Referendums and democracy

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Referendums and democracy

The release of a list of candidates for a new administrative capital has galvanized the public. Calls for a national referendum are becoming louder as opposition to the idea spreads. What was once written off as a mindless campaign promise now seems inevitable. The plans themselves are mired in confusion because few people know what an administrative capital is.
The distinction between “capital” and “administrative capital” is critical to framing the debate. Moving the capital implies the complete move of the national government out of Seoul. In this case, all branches of government and foreign embassies would move to the new capital. The size of such a move makes them rare in modern history.
Among major nations, the most recent example of a change in capitals is the move from Bonn to Berlin in the late 1990s. Berlin became the capital of a reunified Germany in 1990, but the new parliament did not meet in the remodeled Reichstag Building until April 1999. The embassies of 151 countries and many news organizations also moved to Berlin in the following years.
Moving the administrative capital implies that the ministries, which are under control of the executive branch, and perhaps the judicial branch would move out of Seoul. The president and the National Assembly would remain in Seoul, the official capital. Foreign embassies, of course, would remain in Seoul. There are few examples of this arrangement in the world. Malaysia recently chose Putrajaya, a new city 25 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur, as the administrative capital. The new city contains federal government ministries and the prime minister’s residence. The legislature and the king, who serves as head of state, remain in Kuala Lumpur.
The reason for moving the capital of Germany from Bonn to Berlin was symbolism. Nothing else could have justified the expense. Amid the challenges of reunification, the Germans needed a symbol of unity and there was no better symbol than Berlin, the old capital that bore the brunt of the division during the Cold War. The idea of using the move to stimulate the economy of Berlin and the surrounding area that had once been East Germany was a consideration, but that alone would not have justified the move.
Putrajaya comes closest to the idea of an administrative capital, but, at 25 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur, its location has nothing to do with balanced regional development. Instead, it is part of a new development, the Multimedia Super Corridor around Kuala Lumpur, which includes the Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest buildings from 1996 to 2003.
The most original arrangement of capitals has to be South Africa, where the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government are divided among three cities in different regions of the country.
So what should Korea do? Define the topic of discussion. If the idea is to move the official capital a la Berlin, then a strong national consensus verified in a national referendum is in order. If the idea is to move administrative functions from Seoul a la Putrajaya, then agreement between the president and the National Assembly is sufficient.
The distinction is important because it defines those issues that require a verified national consensus and those that elected representatives can deal with. Matters concerning the structure of the state, such as constitutional change and the location of the official capital, require a verified national consensus. The nation’s elected representatives should sort out other matters through vigorous yet organized debate.
Events over the past few years clearly show that Koreans want a say in what their government does and that they have little faith in the National Assembly to represent their views. Over the last two years, candlelight and other demonstrations have tried to mobilize public opinion on issues as diverse as relations with the United States, the impeachment of President Roh, the dispatch of troops to Iraq and the structure of the national pension system.
All of these issues are important, but national referendums cannot solve them all. Among them, only the impeachment of President Roh could not be solved by elected representatives, suggesting that it, like other matters dealing with the structure of the state, should have been solved through a national referendum.
But who should decide what is worthy of a national referendum? A system in which the people have the right to gather signatures to petition the National Assembly to hold a vote on a proposed referendum encourages participation in democracy. At the same time, it gives elected representatives the power to decide which are worthy of a national referendum.

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

by Robert J. Fouser
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