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Asia-pacific

Residents settle in South Korea’s new ‘happy city’

©

Video by Marie LINTON , Guillaume BRESSION , Justin McCURRY

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2012-09-30

Some 120,000 civil servants arrived in the pop-up city of Sejong in September as final touches were added to the €15 billion project. Will the green, innovative “happy city” please its new residents?

As the last licks of paint dry in South Korea’s new administrative centre, some 120,000 civil servants and government officials have waved goodbye to sprawling Seoul for what the authorities call “Sejong, the happy city”.

Built over the past five years and opened in July, the 7,000 hectare complex has already welcomed 120,000 people – most of them civil servants and government officials – and is expected to house half a million by 2030.

The €15 billion project was initially planned as a totally new capital which would house all government institutions including parliament. But persistent political wrangling saw the plans chopped up and chewed over to such an extent that the final result resembled something closer to a university campus. From its original “capital” title, Sejong has now been downgraded to “multifunctional administrative city”; and only 70% of government functions and ministries have been moved to the site, which is located 120 kilometres from Seoul.

Nonetheless, the spot is proving popular. “The real estate market is very active,” Hwangceo Siok-joo from Tae Jin Real Estate told FRANCE 24. “There is no land for sale because none is available, but when there are [plots available], they are sold right away.”

That’s because living standards in Seoul, which houses half the population of South Korea, have become untenable. FRANCE 24 correspondent Marie Linton explains: “It can take 10 minutes to travel two kilometres by car; public transport – albeit efficient – is absolutely packed; and housing prices are extortionate,” she said.

In a report published this year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned South Korea about its mushrooming population and “unbalanced patterns and regional disparities in economic performance, dominated by the Seoul Capital Area”.

Officials will be hoping to address this imbalance by advertising Sejong as a green and cultural alternative. “Our plan is to make civil servants and college students want to live here and nowhere else,” Park Chun-soo, spokesperson for the city’s construction agency, told FRANCE 24.

‘Happy’ city?

But not everybody who has been made to move away from bustling Seoul is pleased with their relocation. “There is nothing in Sejong at the moment, especially in the area where I am about to live,” new resident Jung Yui-seok told FRANCE 24. Jung works for the prime minister’s office, which has been moved into an eco-friendly showcase building – touted as part of what makes Sejong South Korea’s greenest, cleanest, “happy city”.

But Jung, whose family will stay in Seoul while he rents a small room in Sejong, is not impressed. “With my wife, we are going to become what we call a ‘weekend couple’,” he said. “I will have no friends, no acquaintances, and nothing to do. I'm going to feel lonely.”

The Sejong project has stoked controversy ever since it was hatched, and is considered to have aided former president Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide in 2009, in his political ambitions. Current president, Lee Myung-bak, did not even attend the city’s inauguration ceremony in July. His prime minister, Kim Hwang-sik, has voiced fears that dividing ministries and other state agencies between two cities could paralyse the government.

But as the thousands of new residents settle into to their eco-friendly homes and marvel at the solar panels, clean air and innovative architecture, plots of land in Sejong continue to sell like hot cakes.

Date created : 2012-09-30

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