[Viewpoint]Policy mess

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[Viewpoint]Policy mess

The presidential election is only a day away. Around this time five years ago, then-presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun created a stir by pledging that he would build a new administrative capital if he was elected president.
After the launch of President Roh’s “participatory government” platform, his pledge took shape as the balanced regional growth policy. The policy was eventually pared down to a plan to build an integrated administrative city and a few so-called innovation cities, because the plan for a new administrative capital met such strong political opposition.
This time around, because of a degradation of politics that resulted in an absence of policy discussions among the candidates and their parties, the administration’s balanced growth policy was not even an issue in this election.
Nevertheless, the next government is left with the overwhelming task of killing two birds -- promoting balanced growth while simultaneously working to restore national competitiveness ― with one stone, whether they like it or not.
The slogan emphasized by the present administration in its early days, that Korea should become the hub of Northeast Asia, has slipped quietly beneath the waves.
However, the development of the Seoul metropolitan area is still hostage to regulations that dampen growth until balanced regional growth becomes viable.
Decentralization of power, which was part of the balanced regional growth policy, has also disappeared without a trace.
Meanwhile, in an effort to show some tangible accomplishments, the Roh administration has finalized plans for the construction of an integrated administrative city and those innovation cities it pledged to build.
The next government will have the formidable burden of carrying out the plans of the current administration.
Some presidential candidates even spoke of reviving the plan for a new administrative capital, while others asserted that cities that can serve as incubators for world-class science and educational facilities should be created.
The plan to build an administrative city, which has raised worries that it would result in splintering the nation’s capital, should be examined closely and we have to find a remedy for its faults.
It may prove hard to bear the social costs that the plan could create. A tradeoff may be needed between the plan for a complete administrative capital and the withdrawal of regulations that slow the further development of the Seoul metropolitan area.
This tradeoff can achieve the goal of balanced regional growth and the recovery of national competitiveness.
A new land use strategy that ties the Seoul metropolitan area and the Chungcheong provinces into urban clusters could be considered, too.
An even more serious problem is the construction of innovation cities following the move of 178 public institutions to provincial areas.
The next government will have to review the plan in consideration of at least three factors.
First, it will have to pursue the plan to restructure public sector companies through mergers or privatization, which the current administration failed to promote.
As in the old saw about even the gods envying the employees of public companies, the inefficiency of the public sector is detrimental to stronger competitiveness.
However, once plans for the transfer of public institutions to certain areas are settled, regionalism will make it difficult to revise those plans.
For example, if plans to move the Korea National Housing Corporation and the Korea Land Corporation to Jinju and Wansan, respectively, are confirmed, it is unlikely that the plan for the merger of the two government corporations will materialize. What can be expected to happen is that the issue will flare up as a regional confrontation between the two cities.
Second, the plan to disperse major public organizations to 10 different localities is like breaking a mountain into particles. It will only exacerbate the inefficient operation of public institutions.
It is too much to expect that all 10 cities can accomplish regional innovation simultaneously in a small country.
To concentrate attention and selection, it is necessary to merge them into larger units.
This should be pursued in conjunction with the task of simplifying and integrating the administrative areas into bigger units.
Third, even if the move of public organizations is carried out according to existing plans, we should refrain from building new large-scale cities as we are doing now.
As I pointed out many times in the past, the construction of a large innovation city will just accelerate the decline of existing towns. A policy aimed at reviving rural areas will end up killing them instead.
The problem one expects from a re-examination of the plan will be opposition from areas slated to be hosts to the relocated public companies.
A viable alternative to address this problem is the decentralization of power, which the present administration has failed to pursue properly.
If local governments are given both the authority and the resources to take a leading role in regional development without depending on the central government, a workable compromise, replacing the innovation city plan with more local autonomy, will be possible.
The government recently finalized plans to move 28 public institutions to various provinces. Plans for the relocation of the remaining 150 agencies are to be unveiled at the beginning of next year, before the new government comes into office.
If the current administration considers the difficulties this could cause for the new government, it might take steps to do things differently.
Lessening the burden would seem to be the right path to take for the good of the country and the new government.

*The writer is a professor of urban planning at the Graduate School of Environmental Studies, Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Mack-joong

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