[Viewpoint]Wake up from the illusionI was traveling around the rural parts of the country last week when I saw something interesting. I happened to watch a local station’s TV news broadcast about President-elect Lee Myung-bak’s meeting with members of the national council of governors and mayors.
The main point was that while the president-elect mentioned the need to ease regulations in the Seoul metropolitan area, he did not make any clear commitment to balanced growth in rural areas.
The broadcaster predicted that “if the regulations in the Seoul metropolitan area are eased, it will become harder for provincial areas to induce businesses to invest, and thus difficult to revive the rural economy.”
The logic was that easing regulations in the Seoul metropolitan area would bring about a depression in the rural economy.
The civil servants and salesmen in the area who were interviewed on the news shared the same opinion. The idea that imposing regulations on the development of the Seoul metropolitan area is good while easing them is evil seems firmly established, like a religious belief, in the minds of the people in rural areas.
Will all the rural economies really collapse if restrictions on the development of the Seoul metropolitan area are eased?
No, they won’t. First, it is not reasonable for the provinces to oppose the easing of regulations on the Seoul metropolitan area. The existing regulations on the capital region derive from the hypothesis that businesses will move to rural areas if they find it difficult to manage their businesses in the metropolitan area.
Our experience has taught us that this hypothesis is wrong.
Companies which have had difficulty building factories or expanding their production facilities in metropolitan areas have left for China or Vietnam.
To equate the imposition of regulations on the Seoul metropolitan area with getting businesses move their workshops to rural provinces was wrong from the beginning.
Even if that were the case, it would not make sense for the provinces to insist on the imposition of regulations which do little to revive the local economy in the Seoul metropolitan area.
Of course, if the regulations in the Seoul area are lifted, there is a high chance that companies planning to move their factories abroad would stay in the Seoul area.
That could boost the corporate activity here and increase the metropolitan population’s income level. As a result, the gap between the rural area and the Seoul metropolitan area would grow.
There is no guarantee that boosting the development of the metropolitan areas will result in an improvement in the rural provinces. In the end, the claim by the provinces that regulations should be imposed on the Seoul metropolitan area is nothing but an attempt to stop the relative income gap with the capital from growing deeper. They know it won’t help the rural areas.
The idea of regulating the growth of the Seoul area did not come about to help the rural areas. It started because there was a need to spread the development of the economy and the growth of the population, which was creating traffic congestion and a deteriorating environment in the Seoul area. The intention was to make the metropolitan area a better place to live in, not repress its growth.
Under the administration of former President Roh Tae-woo, the plan was turned into a device to shackle the growth of the Seoul area. Roh was aware of the power of rural voters, so he tried to win their favor by promoting a large-scale national project, like the Saemangeum land reclamation, while restricting the growth of the capital.
After President Roh Moo-hyun came to power, the government put an emphasis on the balanced development of the national territory, The regulations imposed on the development of the Seoul area became inviolable.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration’s balanced development of the nation had two main goals.
The first was to keep the Seoul metropolitan area under strict control; the second was to forcibly distribute the functions of the Seoul area to the provinces. Moving the nation’s capital out of Seoul and relocating public enterprises to provinces come under.
Although it was illogical and lacked proof of any effectiveness, the Roh administration promoted the balanced development of the nation’s territory as its major policy, as if it were an ancestral tablet.
It devoted all its efforts, through the end of its term, to foster the creation of both administrative and innovative cities.
When an area is designated as an administrative city or an innovative city, the designated area instantly gains many benefits.
Land owners enjoy rising prices and the local governments can get more money from the central government. For that reason, it is very hard to cancel a project once it has been designated.
The question as to whether such moves mesh with the regional conditions or actually help the rural economies is a secondary concern.
Regional selfishness always prevails.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration even encouraged the provinces to compete psychologically against each other. However, will the rural economy really be revived through this policy?
We need to wake up from the illusion that we can pursue balanced development of national territory.
We cannot and should not turn the whole country into a place like the Seoul metropolitan area.
Each province has its own conditions and characteristics. When we say we want to develop a rural area, it does not mean we want them to become exactly the same as Seoul.
The development of rural areas should be promoted by the local communities themselves.
The central government cannot do it in their place.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jong-soo