[Viewpoint] Building a ghost town

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[Viewpoint] Building a ghost town

Let’s travel into the future, five years from today. It’s time for the busiest fall session at the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul. A new administration took office a year ago but working officials don’t really care who the new boss is at the Blue House or which party is in power.

It is the day senior officials report to and take a beating from the legislative’s myriad subcommittees. The corridors teem with white-collar officials standing with mountains of paper in their arms, ready to assist their seniors. An army of more than 100 working-level officials and their secretaries deployed from the Planning and Finance Ministry to support their ministers and other senior officials stand outside the room of the budget committee hearing. Heated debates at each special committee hearing yesterday stretched late into the night, some even passing after midnight. Still, government officials were happy to get a taste of family comfort and a hot meal. Many had left their families in Seoul when their offices moved to South Chungcheong following the administrative district relocation. Those who moved with the job found sleep in nearby hotels or spas in Yeouido. The less unfortunate hurriedly drove 120 kilometers (74.6 miles) back to Sejong, the new administrative hub, to prepare for the following day’s presentation. After finishing up, they drive back to Yeouido for the morning session.

This morning’s meeting and briefing took place at the National Assembly. Officials lined up for their minister’s signing. The Prime Minister’s Office and the finance minister are fortunate to have rooms at the Assembly. Other ministers had to find temporary accommodation in nearby office buildings. Although the government has been officially moved, each cabinet ministry operates a room or more in Seoul as their work here is plentiful due to presidential and legislative presence. Individually, as well as professionally, government officials are running two households.

The government building in Sejong, the new administrative city, is near-empty during the legislative session. Officials left there are also on standby unless they are summoned to Yeouido for backup. People who traveled from Seoul for some government assistance discover they came in vain. Ministers are found more often in Seoul than in Sejong, even during non-assembly season, for meetings at the Blue House or other events. The four-hour trip between Seoul and Sejong often takes the entire day due to traffic. Work is examined and mostly done on mobile phones in cars.

This is a sketch of the government officials’ dual lives if and when the bill on building Sejong administrative city passes the legislature and the relocation of the government offices is realized. The picture may have been overstated, but angst has long been brewing.

Some warn the move will be catastrophic. Even those at the presidential office believe the government may have to move back to Seoul two to three years later.

Shoveling at the construction site in South Chungcheong nevertheless proceeds, labor that might produce nothing more than a future ghost city. Those in power either stay on the sidelines, saying they cannot take responsibility for a decision made by the former administration or argue backtracking is no longer an option due to next year’s local elections.

Nobody is willing to raise their voice about the money and energy spent on commuting and other waste from running two government households. Talk about inefficiency. Officials complain about the trip downtown from the current government building in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi, just on the outskirts of Seoul. Imagine if they are moved 120 kilometers away. How can we expect efficient government work from fatigue-fraught officials?

Skeptics argue the city is unlikely to draw a population of much more than 50,000 and may exacerbate the gap between the capital and regional areas and possibly generate confusion at times of emergency such as in the face of North Korean provocation.

There are few people in government unaware of these problems. Still they look the other way. Politicians have become prisoners of populism and the Chungcheong population locked in political romanticizing. Pushing forward with the plan in its current form is a monumental mistake. We must quit now before it’s too late, or at least try to do something about the impact this calamity will produce. The construction is already nearly a quarter complete at 24 percent, costing 5.36 trillion won ($4.38 billion), but it’s still not too late to fix the situation.

The plan has been revisited with heated debate since Prime Minister-designate Chung Un-chan raised questions about its feasibility. Chung was brave to raise the issue ahead of a hearing to approve his nomination. We hope the hearing will set grounds for serious discussions on the project.

The array of problems must be readdressed even if the scheme is pursued as planned. We sincerely ask legislators to put their self-interest aside for the national and public interest for a change. We cannot let them abuse the Chungcheong voters for political gain. The government and politicians must come up with a win-win plan to save the relocation idea, help the Chungcheong area and raise government efficiency. The government should stop hiding in the sidelines and get involved now.

*The writer is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Heo Nam-chin
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