(562) Botched relocation plan
In the early 1960s, the South Korean government faced a serious problem: Its capital, the city of Seoul, was becoming too big for its boundaries ― perhaps, too big for a country.
The demographic dominance of Seoul has been a part of Korean life since the 1400s, when the city replaced Gaeseong as the capital of the nation. In subsequent centuries, the population of Seoul fluctuated around the 150,000-180,000 mark. This is impressive, since the next largest Korean city never had more than 30,000 inhabitants.
This trend was maintained after the Korean War: in 1955, the city’s population was 1.5 million, in 1960 it had 2.5 million inhabitants and in 1970 the number reached 5.4 million. It was the era of rapid industrialization, so the great city with manifold employment and educational opportunities attracted many a youngster from the countryside.
It would probably not be seen as a cause for concern had Seoul’s location not been so peculiar; the great city is located in the northwestern corner of the country, merely 25-30 kilometers from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
This means that if the North were to invade again, the city’s population would instantly become hostages ― pretty much as happened in the summer of 1950 when some 75 percent of Seoulites suddenly discovered themselves run by the Kim Il-sung government. During the Korean War, the northern forces controlled Seoul for three months in the summer of 1950, and again for three months in 1951.
In the early and mid-1960s the position of Seoul went from bad to worse. First, the North Korean military acquired a large number of artillery of pieces which were put on the border within range of Seoul. It meant that North Korea could inflict great damage on Seoul. Second, from the mid-1960s, the North Korean government switched to a far more aggressive approach when dealing with its southern neighbor. Understandably enough, the South began to feel increasingly insecure.
Therefore, in the 1960s, the South Korean government undertook a number of measures aimed at reducing the vulnerability of the capital city. Most of them had the additional benefit of promoting better urban planning and a more balanced development of the country.
Admittedly, not all the proposals were that good or well thought out. In the early 1960s, the Seoul city government briefly toyed with idea of establishing administrative control over migration to Seoul. The then Seoul mayor even infamously suggested that every Korean gal and lad should first apply for permission from the authorities if he or she intended to permanently move to Seoul from provinces. This proposal, quite reminiscent of the North Korean movement control system, was rejected, so the municipal administration had to find more realistic ways of dealing with the problem.
One of the proposals was to develop the southern bank of the Han River, the area now known as Gangnam (the most expensive and posh neighborhood in Seoul nowadays) and Yeouido Island (now the seat of the National Assembly and other government institutions). It was done under the assumption that the Han River would provide some natural protection in case of invasion, so at least the inhabitants of southern Seoul would have time to flee.
The large-scale construction of bridges and tunnels began in the late 1960s. It would be very difficult to move people away from downtown Seoul in case of a military emergency, but by then South Korean military planners hoped that a number of new bridges as well as the Mt. Nam tunnels would provide a reliable conduit for refugees. The two Mt. Nam tunnels also had the additional advantage of being large shelters where a significant number of Seoulites would be able to hide during potential North Korean attack.
The most radical of all measures was a government decision to move the administrative capital away from Seoul. In the mid-1970s, the government began to secretly discuss moving the capital from Seoul and in 1977 the relocation plan was made public.
After 10 possible sites for the future capital were studied, a suitable place was located near Daejeon, in Gongju county, quite close to the geometric center of the Korean Peninsula and near the Seoul-Busan expressway. A special expressway or railway was planned, to ensure that the new capital could be reached from Seoul in less than two hours.
Nonetheless, the changes in Korea’s international and domestic situation prevented this bold plan from being implemented, so Seoul remained the capital of Korea. The military threat diminished to a very large extent, even though it still exists. These days few people care about it anymore ― the South won the competition.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.