- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

SEOUL Ruling party candidate Roh Moo-hyun has stirred a ruckus with a proposal to move the presidential Blue House, the National Assembly and many of the government's "administrative functions" from Seoul to the downtrodden central province of Chungchong.

"It's like moving your White House to South Carolina," said Jin Park a National Assembly member for the conservative Grand National Party (GNP). "What are they talking about?"

Mr. Park's largely working-class district in Seoul boasts one big attraction, South Korea's executive mansion with its distinctive blue-tiled roof.

The race between Mr. Roh of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) and GNP candidate Lee Hoi-chang remains too close to call, and the brouhaha over Seoul has emerged as a sleeper issue in a campaign in which cosmic concerns over North Korean nuclear bombs and tense relations with Washington have dominated.

Public polls are banned during the election campaign, but private tracking polls shown to The Washington Times from the weekend reveal that Mr. Roh's once double-digit lead has been sliced to between 3 and 6 percentage points.

Mr. Roh's supporters say the relocation will counter the overwhelming dominance of Seoul in South Korean life and fits with his general reform platform by decentralizing power.

The country's political, financial, cultural, educational and fashion center, Seoul is like New York, Washington, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans rolled into one. With nearly half the country's population now residing in the greater Seoul area, Mr. Roh is not the only one who thinks the situation is unhealthy.

"It's not a political stunt. It's something Roh thought was a necessity," said Kim Sang-woo, a spokesman for the MDP candidate.

"All the money, all the talent, all the resources in this country go to Seoul," Mr. Kim said, "and the other provinces suffer for it."

But Hahm Sung-deuk, director of the Korea Presidential Studies Institute, said Mr. Roh's anti-Seoul move had another motivation votes.

In the strongly regional world of Korean politics, Chungchong has emerged as the key swing district in the presidential election.

"The other regions have a clear favorite, but Chungchong doesn't," Mr. Hahm said. "It could be decisive."

Mr. Hahm noted that the MDP has pushed the capital-relocation idea, which could take a decade or more to complete, in the face of polls showing that fewer than 30 percent of voters strongly support the idea while 45 percent are opposed. But if the Seoul shift proves a potent vote-getter in Chungchong, the gamble would pay off, the analyst said.

The GNP party in a statement said shifting the capital south was an "unrealistic move to dazzle voters in Chungchong region, without considering the costs and time needed to move the capital."

GNP General Secretary Kim Yong-gil estimated it would could cost at least $40 billion to relocate the capital.

Mr. Lee has predicted the move would undermine real estate prices in Seoul, bankrupt businesses and drain the government treasury.

Mr. Roh has counterattacked by saying Mr. Lee's comments show the GNP cares more for well-off landlords than for their hard-pressed tenants. "Not everyone in Seoul is a real estate tycoon," he said.

The issue dominated a televised debate yesterday, with Mr. Lee saying money to relocate the capital could be better spent on the poor and underprivileged.

Mr. Roh said the idea would promote regionally balanced economic development, and he accused Mr. Lee of trying to scare voters.

Concerns about Seoul's power are nothing new.

Former President Chun Doo-hwan proposed moving some government agencies out of the city in the mid-1980s, citing in part the capital's nearness to the border with the hostile North. But he was forced to back down in the face of fierce opposition.

Even Mr. Park, the Seoul lawmaker, said he could see the day when some administrative functions are farmed out to other parts of the country.

"We need to decentralize, but it can't happen all of a sudden. That would be chaos," he warned.

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