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Posted : 2010-01-25 17:10
Updated : 2010-01-25 17:10

Sejong City Struggle

By Andy Jackson

The Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus once remarked, ``It is pleasant, when the sea is high and the winds are dashing the waves about, to watch from the shores the struggles of another."

Well, get out your lawn chairs, because the ongoing dispute over the future of Sejong City has all the makings of a spring full of struggles.

President Roh Moo-hyun had originally conceived of Sejong City as Korea's new capital, a planned city in South Chungcheong Province that would relieve overcrowding in Seoul and promote more balanced regional economic development.

When the Constitutional Court struck down the capital move in 2004, Roh's plan B was to make Sejong City a government administrative center by relocating nine ministries and other offices of the executive branch there.

Lee Myung-bak had initially indicated that he supported Roh's plan while he was campaigning for president but predictably changed course after he was elected, and began seeking alternative development schemes for the region. Accordingly, Prime Minister Chung Un-chan announced earlier this month that the administration was now planning to make Sejong City a center of research, education and industry rather than a government administrative center.

Chung's announcement triggered an immediate and fierce backlash from the opposition Democratic Party, as well as strong opposition from minor parties in the National Assembly.

The conservative Liberty Forward Party, based in North Chungcheong Province, went as far as to stage a mass head-shaving in front of the National Assembly building to show their resolve in their opposition to the proposed new plan and is planning a nationwide protest against the new plan.

The current round of opposition denouncements will likely segue nicely into the spring protest season, which generally runs from the middle of April to late June.

However, the public's attention is focused not on the struggle between Lee's Grand National Party and the opposition over Sejong City, but on the struggle between the GNP's leadership and fellow GNP member Park Geun-hye.

The former GNP chairwoman has been just as strident in her statements against the new Sejong City plan as any politician from the opposition parties, claiming that it is a matter of principle for the current government to stick with Roh's plan.

Park notes in her opposition to revising the Sejong City plan that the GNP had supported Roh's proposal by voting for the special law on the construction of Sejong City in 2005. She claims that to change course now would be a violation of the people's trust.

However, she somehow seems to have forgotten the background of the GNP's support of Roh's plan B. With local elections coming up in 2006, the then-minority conservative party found itself in a bind. They had tenaciously fought against the capital relocation plan but party leaders worried that their opposition would cost them votes in the Chungcheong provinces, an area noted for its swings of support between the major parties. With no hope of stopping the plan in the National Assembly, the GNP decided to go along with it in the hope that doing so would blunt the gains that progressives would make in Chungcheong.

In other words, the GNP's support of Roh's plan was not based on principles, but on the coldest of political calculations. So her invoking of principles and trust now is hardly convincing.

Park also seems to have forgotten that there was no alternative to Roh's plan in 2005; Sejong City was either going to be a government administrative center or nothing. Things have changed since then. The current political environment means that there are alternatives for the development of Sejong City, as evidenced by the change proposed by the Lee administration. That also means that the Lee administration's proposal is not the end of the debate, but the beginning of a new one.

Park Geun-hye is one of Korea's most wily politicians. That makes me suspect that, despite all bluster and name-calling, she will eventually be prepared to make a compromise on Sejong City. However, she will only do so after she has squeezed all the political capital she can from the current impasse.

The Sejong City fight will likely come to a head during the National Assembly session in April, which will be the last chance for the GNP to form a united front and pass the revised plan between the June 2 local elections. If Park has not patched up her differences with the Lee and the GNP leadership by then, her days with the party may be numbered.

Perhaps then she could finally join the party that bears her name. I am sure the Pro-Park Alliance would love to add her seat to the eight they currently control in the National Assembly.

Andy Jackson has been writing on Korean politics and other issues for five years. He is the chairman of Republicans Abroad-Korea. He can be reached at andyinrok@yahoo.com.

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