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[Analytics] How realistic is relocating Korea’s capital from Seoul to Sejong?

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 7, 2020: A woman in a medical mask walks past a sign reading "I Love Seoul" in Gwanghwamun Square. The Chinese authorities registered an outbreak of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus in Wuhan in December 2019. Stanislav Varivoda/TASS. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

On July 20, when public anger over the failure of the South Korean government’s real estate policy was boiling over, Kim Tae-nyeon, floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party, abruptly suggested that the National Assembly and the Blue House both be moved from Seoul to Sejong City. Oh Yoon-joo, Song In-geol, Choi Ye-rin specially for the Hankyoreh.

Since then, Kim’s proposal has continued to gain momentum: even some members of the opposition party agree it’s time to talk about moving Korea’s administrative capital. A poll of 1,200 South Koreans aged 18 and above that was carried out by Ipsos at SBS’ request on July 27 found the general public to support the idea at a ratio of 48.6% to 40.2%.

But relocating the administrative capital would involve navigating a host of complicated legal and political issues. The most pressing question is how to surmount the Constitutional Court’s ruling 16 years ago that relocating the capital away from Seoul is unconstitutional. There are also conflicting ideas about the method and scope of relocation.

In 2004, South Korea’s Constitutional Court struck down the Special Act for the Construction of a New Administrative Capital, arguing that “Seoul’s status as the capital of Korea is part of our unwritten and customary constitution.” That’s why Sejong City was built as a multi-purpose administrative city focusing on government ministries and institutions, rather than an administrative capital comprising the National Assembly and the Blue House. The Constitutional Court received much criticism for basing its ruling on the “customary constitution,” a concept that is unfamiliar even to many legal professionals, but the ruling still stands today.

The most reliable way to clear that hurdle is amending the constitution. “The issue of unconstitutionality would be resolved if we insert the phrase ‘our capital is Sejong City’ into the constitution. Adding the concept to the written constitution invalidates [arguments based on] the unwritten [customary] constitution,” Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan said during a special lecture in Sejong City on July 24.

But amending the constitution requires the support of two-thirds of the 300 lawmakers in the National Assembly, and it’s uncertain where the opposition party would go along with such a plan. With 103 seats, the United Future Party (UFP) is in a position to veto constitutional amendments. In 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in submitted a constitutional amendment that would have added the phrase “matters related to the capital will be decided by law,” but the bill was scrapped.

Kim Du-gwan is one of several lawmakers with the Democratic Party who is pushing to submit another special act to the National Assembly. “The times have changed, and the Constitutional Court might come to a different conclusion. Another option is to have the ruling and opposition parties come together to pass an act that would allow us to complete our administrative capital,” said Jeong Jeong-soon, a Democratic Party lawmaker representing the Sandang District of Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province. These lawmakers think it’s worth drafting the related legislation, assuming that the current justices on the Constitutional Court are unlikely to find the law unconstitutional.

“If a special act is passed, a constitutional petition will be filed. But if the Constitutional Court scraps its theoretical argument about a ‘customary constitution’ and finds the act constitutional, things could move forward very smoothly,” said Noh Hui-beom, a former researcher for the Constitutional Court who now works as an attorney. But there’s no way to be completely certain the court would uphold the law’s constitutionality.

Another idea is to hold a single-issue national referendum that would ask the public whether Korea’s administrative capital should be Sejong City. “The argument that Seoul is the capital under the customary constitution could be demolished through a national referendum. That argument could even be erased just by showing through opinion polls that people’s attitude toward the law has changed,” said Jeong Ju-baek, a professor of constitutional law at Chungnam National University.

But other analysts say the Constitutional Court’s decision also ruled out the option of changing the capital through a national referendum. Some scholars hold that the customary constitution, unlike the written constitution, can be amended through a referendum, but that position doesn’t have a large number of adherents.

There are also a variety of views about whether to start by tackling the toughest aspects of the administrative capital initiative or by moving ahead with what is immediately possible.

Lee Choon-hee, mayor of Sejong City, has suggested that the government move ahead with the construction of an assembly hall for the National Assembly and a presidential office in Sejong City. Lee was the official who was responsible for planning the administrative capital while chairing the promotional committee back in 2003.

“Amending the constitution is the best and most definite method of relocating the National Assembly and the Blue House, but it’s not practical. We can’t just sit on our hands,” Lee said.

Sejong City has already acquired land to house the assembly hall, and the government has allocated 2 billion won (US$1.7 million) in its budget for designing the hall. The National Assembly secretariat also commissioned a study about setting up a branch in Sejong in August 2019. A plan is also being explored for setting up a presidential office at the government complex in Sejong, which is scheduled for completion in 2021.

“In September, I think the president ought to go down to the Sejong office and do his work there a couple days a week,” wrote Kim Byong-joon, former chair of the Liberty Korea Party’s emergency committee, on his Facebook page on July 24. Kim ran for a seat in Sejong City in the general election in April.

“We need to do things right, even if that means taking things slow. It would be more efficient to first build consensus through amending the constitution and holding a national referendum and then relocate the National Assembly and the Blue House all at once,” said Lee Man-hyung, a professor of urban engineering at Chungbuk National University.

“Unless the government first comes up with an overarching roadmap for relocation that’s grounded in national consensus, any attempt to gradually relocate the capital through makeshift measures would torpedo the whole project,” said Park Jae-yul, head of a civic group promoting the decentralization of power.

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