[Viewpoint] Toward an expanded capital

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[Viewpoint] Toward an expanded capital

It’s been two and a half years since I started to work for the province of Gyeonggi. Why was the region named “Gyeonggi?” The fortress that surrounds the king’s palace has a 0.75 mile radius, which is again enclosed by a wall having a radius of 2.4 miles. The area inside the walls is called “gyeong,” or capital. The area some 24 miles from the wall is called “gyo,” and the outermost circle, another 24 miles from gyo, is “jeon.”

In China, a distance of 122 miles from the capital was called “gi,” but in Korea, a 50-mile radius from a capital is considered to be under direct jurisdiction of the king and is referred to as “Gyeonggi.” The system was first introduced during the reign of King Hyeonjong of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).

A capital of a country should cover at least a district with a 50-mile radius. The criterion was invented 1,000 years ago and is still valid. However, the Korean capital of Seoul is tiny. Since imperial Japan reduced Hanyang, the capital of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), into a city with a 2.5 mile-radius and named it Gyeongseong, Seoul has not been able to break out of the area enclosed by the four gates. The new city hall is being built in a small space, rubbing shoulders with national treasures and cultural properties lining the old capital.

And the outskirts of Seoul, which is referred to as the “capital region,” is restrained by the Capital Region Maintenance and Planning Act, which contains various restrictions. The population exploded and housing prices soared. People crossed the Han River to the Gangnam region, and then moved to Bundang, Pangyo and now to Dongtan. The overflow development has made the city overcrowded, chaotic and disorganized.

Seoul’s population density is the highest among OECD member countries, with more than 17,000 residents per square kilometer.

That is twice the population density of Mexico City, which is in second place. It’s also three times as dense as Tokyo and eight times as dense as New York City.

The city is redecorated with new designs, but a better appearance does not mean an improved quality of life. And the government came up with a capital relocation plan out of popular demand. Sejong City came along as a means to divide the administration functions of the government.

The alternative plan for Sejong City is important, but a more urgent and fundamental task is how we handle Seoul and the capital region of Gyeonggi. If we continue to look at Seoul and Gyeonggi separately, we will only repeat our errors.

If we look at the two regions as one, the problem can be solved easily. We can foster urban planning on a bigger scale within a 50-mile radius of Gyeonggi. With few exceptions, development restrictions should be dramatically lifted. Districts for residential, business, science and technology and university use need to be planned anew, and the GTX, or the Great Train eXpress, will connect the region 40 meters underground in an X shape. Seoul-Gyeonggi will be born again as a mega-city and a great capital.

Tokyo is 3.6 times the size of Seoul, and Beijing is 27 times larger than the Korean capital. Beijing is a capital of a big country, but even if we combine Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, it would still be about two-thirds the size of Beijing. Bigger does not necessarily mean better, but a capital city in the era of global economy should be at least 50 miles in radius.

At the end of the Joseon Dynasty, King Gojong reorganized the eight-province system into 23 bu and 337 gun in the Gabo Reform. Hanseong-bu included modern-day Seoul and the north Gyeonggi region. Today’s North Gyeongsang corresponds with Daegu-bu and Andong-bu and South Gyeongsang Province corresponds with Jinju-bu and Dongrae-bu. The Honam region was divided into Jeonju-bu, Naju-bu and Namyang-bu.

Gojong combined metropolitan cities and provinces into single administrative units. We should make reference to this idea.

With administrative reorganization ahead of us, a few lawmakers have made proposals. Some suggested getting rid of the provinces and replacing them with 60 metropolitan cities, and others have proposed a federation system. For some reason, the government meddled with the idea of mergers between cities, but the plan seems to no longer be under consideration. The nation should not be stirred by such a temporary strategy with no principle or direction.

Above all, we need to reach a national consensus on what a capital in the globalized era should be. With reference to the agreed criteria, each political party should devise a general plan for administrative reform and make a pledge during the next presidential election campaign.

Four years ago in Japan, the Regional System Research Society directly under the Office of the Prime Minister submitted a report titled “Response to the Proper Position on the District-State System” to the prime minister. The report proposes to integrate and reorganize the current administrative system of one metropolitan city, one district, two urban prefectures and 43 rural prefectures into a dozen districts or states. Both the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party agree on the idea to create a regional unit bigger than a prefecture and to better reinforce decentralization.

We need to break away from the easy concept of dealing with Sejong City. Instead, a “Great Capital Plan” and administrative system reorganization that take into account national competitiveness and post-unification plans should be proposed. Only then can Seoul and Gyeonggi thrive, and the Republic of Korea will be able to compete on the world stage.


*The writer is the president/CEO of the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Gweon Yeong-bin

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