“Looking ahead 100 years for Seoul” (JoongAng Daily, September 23, 2014)

JoongAng Daily

“Looking ahead 100 years for Seoul”

September 23, 2014

Emanuel Pastreich




When I came to Korea in 2007, I was deeply impressed by the capability of the Korean local government for institutional innovation. For example, while working as an adviser to the governor of South Chungcheong, I learned about the preparations for the move of the capital from Daejeon to Hongseong.

It is a remarkable policy in Korea that declares that once a city has reached a population of one million, it should be designated a “metropolitan city” and have a status equivalent to a province. Daejeon had reached that status, and so the government decided that it would no longer serve as the capital of South Chungcheong – so the capital had to be moved.

This policy is very scientific and practical, but such innovation is impossible in the United States. Major cities like New York or Los Angeles do not have the representation of a state – although they are far larger than many existing states. Moreover, it has been impossible to establish any new states for more than 50 years. Even the obvious cases for federal statehood, such as Puerto Rico, have dragged on so long that some are thinking about independence out of frustration.

But although I was deeply impressed by how quickly Koreans can effectuate change in government, I have also seen weaknesses in local governance that undercut the appeal of the Korean model. We see increasing shortsightedness in urban planning and a lack of credible institutional history. Government officials often know nothing of the precedents for good governance in their own city and do not have the time to come up with innovative new policies because they are rushing around everyday filling out forms.

I was impressed by the broadly educated and thoughtful government officials that I worked with in South Chungcheong, Daejeon and Seoul. However, despite the expertise of Korean public officials, they are increasingly rotated from department to department in government in terms shorter than one year. Sadly, despite their intellectual ability and commitment, they are unable to acquire any expertise in one field. Needless to say, they do not have time to sit down and read books on topics relevant to their work.

Moreover, the standards used for the evaluation of government units focus on short-term measurable output as opposed to the long-term formulation of a vision and its systematic implementation over decades. The truth is that achievements in government can only be meaningfully interpreted over periods from five to 10 years, and require both the perspective of citizens and the insights of experts with a sense of history.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government has come up with a variety of impressive innovations, such as Wiki Seoul for the direct representation of the voices of citizens in government policy, and has launched a thoughtful campaign to increase green space in the city. But unless government officials have the time and motivation to pursue long-term goals, these innovations may quickly fade away.

Local government in Korea desperately needs a fundamental shift from short-term to long-term planning. No matter how ingenious policy proposals may be, if they cannot be implemented through multiple administrations, impact will be limited – or zero.

Within city hall, long-term planning can allow employees of Seoul Metropolitan City to build up expertise over decades. It is possible for the first time to plan the training of experts in new fields that will be required due to climate change several decades in advance. We cannot get specialists overnight no matter how much we pay, but we can slowly create a perfect team for Seoul if we plan ahead.

Perhaps the best solution to this problem is to go back to the administrative wisdom of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and its emphasis on long-term governance. Seoul should simply adopt a 100-year plan for the city concerning development and maintenance. Although the details of city planning more than 40 years in the future cannot be given in detail, a remarkable amount can be predicted about the state of infrastructure and the city’s needs from careful analysis over a long period of time. In fact, many opportunities for innovation only become visible when one steps back and looks at the development of urban space over the long term.

A 100-year plan makes visible the hidden costs of poorly constructed buildings and roads, encouraging us to emphasize quality materials and quality work. Suddenly it becomes apparent that carefully built units for sewers and sidewalks are actually cheaper. Such planning will encourage us to buy electric lights that last for 20 years and build houses that last for 100 years.

Similarly, long-term planning makes it far harder for politicians to engage in short-term populist stunts because the implications of policies are projected out far into the future in all calculations.

Moreover, long-term planning should go hand-in-hand with long-term financing. If we develop new financing systems for projects that stretch over a period of 20 or 30 years, it will become possible to insulate homes or use solar panels at an affordable rate. Long-term financing plans for 30- to 50-year intervals will bring new stability to the economy and reduce the disruptions in economic activity brought about by short-term speculation.

Korea’s traditional approach to government in the Joseon Dynasty was based on the principle of long-term planning. Bringing back that wisdom to the city of Seoul today, and to all local governments, could make Korea a world leader in administration.


One response to ““Looking ahead 100 years for Seoul” (JoongAng Daily, September 23, 2014)

  1. Craig September 23, 2014 at 6:08 am

    I agree with the sentiments in this piece. More than just theoretical, as a pragmatic concern, they make sense, as well: Minimizing costs and maximizing benefits, everyone wins.

    Alas, I don’t see how this can play out.

    First, there’s democracy. A diverse and often quarrelsome population (ie, all human groups) will create irreconcilable contradictions in such a plan which will, in the end, render it functionally meaningless or ineffective at best, and possibly disastrously internally contradictory.

    The only way to secure this would be to eliminate the democratic tit-for-tat that free societies demand.

    The other, and far more serious, problem is this: technology. The reason Korean towns and cities could have plans during the Joseon was simple. Change almost never occurred.
    We have no way of knowing what the demands on the city in 2035 will be like, let alone 2050 or 2070 or 2100. There’s been so much change in the last 30 years, it’s hard to see straight.

    The third problem is the “Bbali Bbali” attitude in Korea. It’s very hard to get even wealthy Korean corporations and individuals out of the immediate-return framework. Korea is still in “Survival” economic mode, and “quality” means little to most people. Nobody wants to spend the money to do things very well because they won’t be around to appreciate it.

    So there are a few … mild troubles to deal with before we get to this stage.

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