Why doesn't South Korea move its capital?

how saving face complicates East Asian negotiation

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Seoul. Photo by Jana Sabeth on Unsplash.

I heard a story, probably apocryphal, when I was in South Korea: Mr Kim, a mid-level functionary with the urban planning division of the South Korean government, was visited by his counterpart, Mr Lee, from the North Korean government.

The South Korean drove the North Korean through the city center of Seoul and around its environs. Although Mr Kim explained key design points at several important parts of the city, which he found interesting and felt would also interest anyone in his profession, Mr Lee remained sulkily quiet.

Finally, well into the second hour of their drive through Seoul, Mr Lee spoke up: "I know that you arranged to have every car in the country here in Seoul to impress me."

Mr Kim sighed, thought for a moment, then conceded: "You got me there. But the hard part was getting all the buildings up here."

Photo by Nichi 17 on Unsplash.

The impossibility of moving all those buildings is what makes Mr Kim’s joke funny. It also explains why it’s not feasible to move the capital as many people have suggested.

Half of South Korea's population lives in Seoul. The metropolitan area's width is roughly a third of the width of the peninsula. Even if it were somehow possible to move so many people & buildings — to say nothing of the infrastructure beneath them — where to put this Neo-Seoul would also be a problem because Korea is mountainous, and most valleys are already filled by farms and other cities.

So it's just not feasible to move Seoul.

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Gwanghwamun Postal Office, Ilmin Museum of Art, Dong-A Media Center on Sejongno Steet in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Ian Muttoo, CC BY-SA 2.0.

But if it were feasible, why bother? North Korean missile technology can deliver nuclear warheads all the way to the California coast. They're certainly capable of reaching anywhere in the southern half of the Korean peninsula. It's only four or five hours by bullet train from Seoul to Busan. A nuke can cover that distance in minutes. So there's nowhere safe to move.

Tension on the Korean peninsula can only be resolved through negotiation. The North needs the South, and both sides know it. There is, despite the nuclear weapons program, widespread oppression, famine, & poverty in the North. The negotiated solution will take a long time to reach, in part because in Confucian cultures, the loss of face (or damaged pride) is an insurmountable hurdle in negotiations.

The US was able to negotiate a peace settlement with the Vietnamese because they were the side that lost face. While pride matters to the US, it is not so critical that they can’t compromise, particularly when American dead mattered so much more than the political status of a small faraway country. The war had been justified by American Cold War fiction or just plain lies, and it was unwinnable and too costly in resources and human life. The Vietnamese, if anything, gained face because they had finally evicted foreigners from their country: the Americans, the French before them, & the Chinese before them.

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Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter at the arrival ceremony for the Vice Premier of China. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.

There’s another story: Deng Xiaoping was able to reverse Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policy on privately owned business with a kind of "Look! There goes Comet Kohoutek!" utterance. Instead of saying anything about reversing a long-standing policy and losing face, Deng simply said, "To get rich is glorious" — 致富光荣 (zhìfù guāngróng). This story too may be apocryphal because while it is widely quoted as the starting point of a great reversal in Chinese policy, nobody has documented when and where Deng said it. It also doesn’t help that the CCP continually revises its history to fit the exigencies of the moment.

Whatever Deng did or did not say, the effect was the same — he unleashed the pent-up capitalist dragon from the catacomb where it had been chained for decades — yet he had managed not to lose face. It was left to lower functionaries to enact the consequences of Deng’s utterance. Those apparatchiks lost no face either because they were simply taking care of minor details without mindfulness of the great reversal they were enacting, and nobody anywhere was going to look this gift dragon in its fiery mouth.

North Korea stands in a similar quandary. Japan & the United States have built the South into a showcase of Capitalist success. Regardless of what the North tells its people about South Korea, the North’s leadership knows they have failed. Their weaponry is the unsustainable lifestyle of a thief, holding up the world at ICBM-point to get the rice they need to survive, yet ultimately they will need to reverse policy without losing face.

So it's not a physical but a rhetorical move that will save Korea from the fire. They might need the help of a diplomat who understands the importance in Confucian-derived cultures of face.

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writer / poet / explorer

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