(574) Gwacheon complex
If for some reason you have to visit several government ministries, including the Ministry of Employment and Labor, you should be ready for a long subway ride. Indeed, while most Korean government agencies are clustered in downtown Seoul, in the Gwanghwamun area, some of them are located far away.
Strictly speaking, they are not even in Seoul, but in the city of Gwacheon, south of the Korean capital. How did it happen? Why were some government offices moved away while others still enjoy the comfort of Seoul downtown? The story of the Gwacheon government complex is interesting and closely related to strategic and military considerations.
The history of the complex begins in the 1970s when the Korean government once again decided to do something about the strategic vulnerability of its seat, the city of Seoul. Strictly speaking, the location of Seoul has been a strategist’s nightmare from 1945 when the nation’s traditional capital found itself sitting virtually on the potential frontline. When war actually broke out in 1950, it took the North Korean army three days to take Seoul, and after 1953 its strategic location worsened even more: the post-1953 DMZ ran even closer to the capital than pre-1950 “38th parallel.”
In military terms it was not a very smart decision to return government agencies to Seoul, and some people in 1953 argued that the government should stay in the southeastern port city of Busan where it had spent the war years. But political logic prevailed: as the nation’s capital for over 500 years, Seoul enjoyed tremendous prestige, and then-President Syngman Rhee decided to take the risks.
In the late 1970s, the government again considered moving the capital away from Seoul and even designed an ambitious project to build an administrative capital in a central location, further away from the border. The project had to be shelved however, due to budgetary concerns.
The problem remained. If anything, the situation had grown worse by the 1970s, compared to the times of the Korean War. By that time, North Korean army had acquired a number of powerful artillery systems with range of a few dozen miles. This meant that all the major government buildings in the downtown Seoul area could become targets and would probably be damaged or destroyed in the first hours of a new Korean War.
Nowadays, such worries appear paranoid, but this was not the case in the 1970s. In 1975, the anti-Communist regimes of Indochina collapsed like dominoes (similar to the controversial theory), raising fears in Seoul as well. South Korea always felt great affinity with South Vietnam, which went down in spring 1975, being conquered by the victorious Communist North. The fate of South Vietnam was sealed when U.S. troops were pulled out, and the same withdrawal was at the time discussed in Korea as well. This did not bode well. The logic went, if the “Reds” succeeded in Vietnam, why not in Korea?
Thus, a new plan was designed, less ambitious and far less expensive than the complete relocation of the capital. It was decided to move government agencies a few dozen kilometers south, away from the dangerous border and out of range of all but the most powerful artillery of the potential enemy. The new administrative city was to be built on site of the village of Gwacheon.
The village of Gwacheon has a long but rather unremarkable history. For nearly 1,000 years it was a large farming village which, until the introduction of modern transportation, also served as the last overnight stop on one’s way to Seoul from south (yes, the trip which now takes less than hour in subway once took one full day). In 1789, its population was 2,778 people and by 1960 it had merely doubled to 6,147. However, it was a good piece of real estate, a small plain near Seoul. It was located just south of high mountain range which also provided some additional protection against North Korean shells in case of war.
The project proceeded with great speed. The decision to build a new city was made in early spring of 1978, and a competition was held to choose the best location for the new complex. The final decision was made in October, and on the April 10, 1979, the groundbreaking ceremony took place amid great pomp. The land in the entire area was bought by the government, and in 1982 the first offices moved to the new buildings.
For some reason (perhaps, noticeable detente in the South-North relations since the mid-80s) the move was only partial. Nowadays, the Gwacheon complex houses only a part of the ministries ― largely those dealing with economic and social matters.
Apart from the government complex, Gwacheon included a number of apartment blocks where officials were supposed to live (actually, many of them preferred to commute from Seoul).
Soon after the completion of the complex, Gwacheon acquired a new nationwide attraction: it became the site of Seoul Grand Park, a large entertainment and recreation center, complete with zoo, a local version of Disneyland and a few museums. This is a very popular place, I often go myself. It’s difficult to believe among the crowds of happy kids and couples, this fun and romantic place was born out of an unsuccessful WMD project. Yes, the WMD stands for “weapons of mass destruction.”
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. Reach him at email@example.com.