[Viewpoint] Many should apologize for Sejong

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[Viewpoint] Many should apologize for Sejong

President Lee Myung-bak apologized to the public once again when he acknowledged he had made a mistake. He said he regretted having campaigned to build a new administrative city in South Chungcheong.

The president may in the future be remembered as a world-class head bower. In less than two years in office, he has bowed numerous times, deeper on some occasions than others. When his first cabinet lineup drew criticism, the president, fresh from swearing in, apologized for being oblivious to public sentiment. A few months later, Lee again stepped before the public to bow and seek their forgiveness for failing to quickly address concerns over American beef imports.

Now, he has blamed his political desire for votes and a lack of steadfastness in his beliefs during the campaign for bringing on the controversy over Sejong City.

President Lee said he decided to reverse the project’s initial objective in order to “stand tall before history.” Even though he plans to keep Sejong viable for other purposes, he cannot escape scorn for setting a critical precedent of reversing a political agreement.

Our former presidents have been reluctant to acknowledge mistakes. President Kim Young-sam insisted he was ignorant of the potential dangers of a currency crisis. President Kim Dae-jung looked the other way when a conglomerate chairman killed himself amid charges that the group had paid the North Koreans millions of dollars to organize the first-ever summit between the two Koreas. Instead of apologizing, President Roh Moo-hyun, despite a chain of controversies, claimed that he was misunderstood. His intransigence and temperament in the end drove him to take his own life.

Perhaps, it is fortunate that an apologizer has come along in our presidential lineage.

The coincidental news of Dubai’s downfall added an aura of urgency and validity to the logic behind the president’s televised apology. The Dubai crisis provides a sapient lesson on the possible fallout from hasty and reckless major state projects.

In defiance of natural limits, Dubai stood as a desert oasis with boundless potential. It created a modern architectural wonderland of skyscrapers and artificial landscapes build on sand. The modern Tower of Babel, however, tumbled down as the result of human profligacy and greed.

The tiny Persian Gulf emirate dreamed of being an Arabian New York fueled by oil cash. It ended up as a poor and outlandish mimicry of rich Western lifestyles.

I had an opportunity to visit the city a couple of years back. It took less than a day before disillusionment set in. The glitzy streets were lined with luxury shops and grandiose, five-star hotel rooms that cost hundreds a night that were overflowing with wealthy Arabs. But along the tip of islands formed in the shape of a palm tree was murky foam from the resort’s sewage.

As the city lit up in flashy glitter at dusk, it exposed its hidden scars. An army of haggard South Asian migrant workers marched out from underpaid construction work sites to return to their horrid little container boxes they called their desert homes. It took three decades for the city of excess and indulgence to seduce a population of 500,000 at the expense of the exploitation of foreign laborers and a worsening gap in wealth.

But the world came to see the startling reality behind the facade as Dubai shook like a city built on sand as the ripples from the global financial reached its shores.

The one-time jewel of the United Arab Emirates has now become a potential black hole for the federation and possibly for the entire Arab world. In the end, who will be responsible for the pain and cost?

We should ask this question numerous times as we continue to construct Sejong City. The original plan called for a city with a population of 500,000. It would have hosted a number of government offices, state organizations and research institutions.

Is it possible to build a city based on government employees without first having a metro area’s usual bustling elements?

The Songdo International Business District, a new city being developed off the coast of Incheon, houses no government offices. Its proximity to an international airport and its offer of business incentives has lured corporate investors as well as research centers. Cisco Systems recently pledged an investment of $10 billion to help create an innovative network-oriented community in Songdo. Yet that city expects a population of no more than 150,000.

A political agreement is often the golden rule in a democratic society. But public opinion should come ahead of any deal struck by political parties. I don’t remember anyone asking for the public’s opinion on this matter. This is no issue that should end with an apology from the president. All politicians involved in the hasty political compromise should bow as well. If they put their humbled heads together, maybe they could help design a new project capable of drawing a population of 200,000.


*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Ho-keun
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