Court blow to capital relocation plan
Khan Hyun-sung in Seoul
The president's bid to shift the nation's administration out of Seoul is deemed unconstitutional
A proposal by the South Korean president to relocate the country's capital from Seoul was on hold yesterday after one of the country's top courts deemed it unconstitutional.
In a ruling televised live on national TV, South Korea's Constitutional Court decided by a majority of eight to one against a special law paving the way for the relocation.
'People's basic rights to vote were seriously harmed as the relocation project was pursued without winning a national consensus,' said court president Yoon Young-chul. 'The president should have put the matter to a public vote, but he didn't. This violates the basic voting rights of the people.'
The government wants to move South Korea's administrative capital from Seoul to the Gongju-Yeongi area in the centre of the country.
President Roh Moo-hyun has said relocating the administrative capital would ease pressure on Seoul - home to 10 million people, a fifth of the country's population - as well as producing more balanced development.
But critics oppose the proposal's huge cost, conservatively estimated at around US$40 billion.
With the project immediately suspended following the ruling, the decision is a huge setback for Mr Roh, who made the relocation of the country's administrative capital from Seoul a top manifesto pledge during his 2002 presidential campaign.
Seoul has been Korea's capital since the 14th century, remaining the South's capital after the country was partitioned in 1953.
'My guess is that President Roh will now give up the capital relocation, at least for the moment and focus on his other reform measures,' said Lee Nae-young of Koryo University.
But other analysts suggest the president is unlikely to surrender one of his flagship policies.
'I don't know what means or options they will use, but my feeling is that they have placed so much [political] capital in this plan that I don't think they will simply lay down and give up,' said Lee Jung-hoon of Yonsei University.
The presidential office said it was perplexed by the court decision but pledged to take further soundings on the issue.
'We will also take ample time to review the effectiveness of the Constitutional Court's ruling and take measures to collect public opinion and consult closely with the ruling party,' presidential spokesman Kim Jong-min said.
The ruling was made in response to a petition filed by 169 people, including Seoul city officials, who claimed the government violated their rights by unilaterally pursuing the relocation.
The mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, touted as a possible future presidential candidate and a leading opponent of the relocation scheme, welcomed the ruling.
'I express deep respect for the historic decision by the Constitutional Court,' he said. 'The victory is not only for the citizens of Seoul but for all people of our country.'