Reform for local efficiencyIt is a good thing that the government and opposition parties have agreed on a basic direction for reform of local governments. The gist of the agreement is to consolidate through partial mergers of basic units such as cities, counties (gun) and districts (gu), and give the combined local governments autonomy on education and policing. In addition, they have agreed to eliminate district or county councils in metropolitan cities and abolish 3,487 eup, myeon and dong, replacing them with self-governing districts instead. Once the related bill is passed at the full plenary session of the National Assembly at the end of April, Korea’s century-old local administrative system will finally see major change.
In the big picture, the reform plan will combine 230 cities, counties and districts nationwide into around 50 to 60 cities. The aim is to finish the process before the 2014 local elections so that heads of local governments can be elected in the new jurisdictions. The need to merge cities and counties has been presented time after time, because we need to relieve the inconvenience caused to residents and do away with unnecessary administrative facilities.
Many small rural cities with populations of just a few thousand have their own government offices, fire stations, local election management committees and police stations, plus public facilities such as stadiums and cultural halls. There appear to be no reasons to oppose mergers if they will prevent such redundant investments and use the savings to improve the respective areas’ competitiveness.
Above all, the agreement to elect leaders of small local governments through direct elections and not install councils for the small localities is commendable. District and county councils have been a topic of debate since 1995, when the system of autonomous local governments started. There was a lot of opposition to the idea, but it was introduced in the end to promote grass-roots democracy. However, the lack of regulations banning council members from holding more than one position has caused these councils to deteriorate into places where leaders feud to maintain their power. Positions that started out unpaid now earn tens of millions of won (tens of thousands of dollars), damaging the intent to encourage volunteerism.
There is still a long way to go, even if the Assembly passes the bill. Opposition from entrenched local politicians and residents value “local color” are expected. Sensitive issues remain such as whether provinces will be maintained. However, the 21st century is an era of competitiveness. We look forward to discussions on reform of local governments that go beyond political considerations and localism and look 100 years into the future.