Sejong City, the Korean Dream

Sejong City

Korea almost moved the capital from Seoul to a new, planned city in the middle of the country. The city I’m talking about is Sejong City which was opened officially on July 1st in 2012. This blog post shows my impressions from three visits to Sejong City. Each time I had the chance to explore the city for a couple of hours on foot and bus.

 

 

History of Sejong City

In 2003 former president Roh Moo-hyun promised to move the capital from Seoul to a new city in the heart of the country. His motivation was to minimize Seoul’s strong dominance and to promote regional development in other areas of Korea. Seoul was (and still is) overcrowded, expensive and dominant in the local economy. This led to a huge pressure on all functions and it caused bottlenecks.

There was a huge opposition to his plan and the Saenuri Party (it was called Grand National Party back then) blocked to change of the nation’s capital to a new location. Former president Roh modified the project and planned to move the majority of ministries and government institutes to the city which would become a special administrative city.

Lee Myung-bak, the president after Roh, tried to scrap the plans but he wasn’t successful. This article about the history of Sejong City summarizes the struggle until the official opening.

 

 

Location of Sejong City

The government put up a committee to select the best location for the new city. Three spots made it into the final round. All candidates are actually in close proximity to each other. The candidate Yeongi (연기) won.

It seemed that the location at the Geum River (금강), around 120km south of Seoul and less than 15km north of Daejeon, was perfect. The plans are to have a population of 500,000 by 2030. The urban area of the city is going to be 465 sq.km, which is 70% of Seoul’s urban area.

Here’s a map of the city:

The city is built along a circular main road. Green spaces are in the middle. The reason for such a form isn’t the topography, it’s more that the whole master plan follows a public transport-oriented development. Buses serve along the main road and circle around the whole city. Residential areas and offices are in very close proximity to bus stations.

Personally, I prefer a pedestrian-focused development or the so-called compact city concept. But still, a public transport-paradigm for the urban development is really nice. Sadly, as I will explain later, it doesn’t work quiet the way it should.

 

 

A Walk around Sejong City

I begun my first tour through Sejong City right in front of the main entry to the government complex. There I was greeted by this huge information board:

sejong-plan

The map shows the government complex in the center of Sejong City. All government buildings are connected via bridges. I think that this is the longest green rooftop in the world.

Sejong City

The complex is a huge monster, spreading over several blocks.

 

Sejong City

The bridges spread over streets in a very nice style. Walking under the structure wasn’t uncomfortable at all.

Sejong City

Even wide lanes are no issue for the government building connections. Multiple level-bridges link the ministries with each other.

Sejong2_4

Here’s another view of a connection between two ministries. Yes, I was impressed by the pedestrian bridges.

Sejong City

The government complex doesn’t greet a visitor with open doors. Workers can use such an entry/exit. A fence runs around the whole complex and visitors have to use main entrances to get into the complex. I wasn’t inside, so I can’t tell you any details about how easy it’s to get inside or what documents are required.

Sejong2_3

There are direction signs to the ministries. The English version isn’t helpful because it just shows the abbreviations of the ministries. The name of each ministry is also written in big letters on the facade. Usually the ministries and their names change with every new government (every 5 years) and this also means that the facade/direction signs have to be changed as well.

Sejong City

It was really funny that the Ministry of Education has a kindergarten attached to its building. There are actually several kindergartens in the government complex.

 

 

The Heart of Sejong City

After examing the government complex for a while, I walked into the area that the government complex surrounds. There I found this:

Sejong City

Probably some of you might think that it’s the intercity bus terminal of Sejong. No, that’s wrong. It’s a parking lot for the shuttle buses operating between Sejong and other parts of Korea.

The shuttle bus plan from June 2015 showed that 133 buses were transporting government workers to Sejong City. A new plan was released in September 1, now there are 110 buses left. That’s still a huge amount of buses getting government workers to their work place.

If you click on the title beneath, then you can see how many buses operate between Gyeonggi-do or Seoul to Sejong.

 

 

The buses are shuttle services from close-by train stations, Daejeon, Cheongju but the majority comes from Seoul and Gyeonggi-do. The funding for the shuttle buses is secured until the end of the year. There’s a possibility that the shuttle bus service is going to stop in 2016 and it will force more people to move to Sejong City (or worse: commute by car for over two hours per day). I believe that they will get again funding for buses because people will demand shuttles.

You can see the organization of the buses on this sign:

Sejong City Bus Table

This is an information board that shows the organiztion of buses and their destination. Here buses to Suwon, Ansan, Suji, Bundang, Daejeon and various stations around Sejong city.

Sejong City

At first, I was surprised to see so many buses and it took me some time to understand the situation: The heart of Sejong City is a huge bus parking space. The buses keep the city alive by bringing in people that have to work in the city but don’t want to live there.

Sejong City

There are more buses there than at the bus terminal. And the pictures just showed one of a handful shuttle bus parking lots around the city.

 

 

Attractions of Sejong City

Then I walked to the Sejong National Library:

Sejong City

The design is fascinating and it was one of the few crowded places besides some shopping malls in Sejong City. Many people in their 20s were studying there, probably preparing for the civil service examination. That’s at least the vibe I got during my visit.

Sejong City

A highlight of Sejong City is the lake behind the national library.

Sejong City

Walking through the empty lake park I was accompanied by a Jazz version of R. Kelly’s “I believe I can fly” that was played by the large speakers.

There are also some areas to go out in the evening with a small selection of restaurants. One place that I visited consists of around 20 buildings along a narrow side-street.

Sejong2_2

Restaurants were about to open and everywhere was the sound of construction. With more inhabitants more stores and more restaurants will pop up.

Of course, this is a must-have in every modern Korean city: a stream.

Sejong City

The stream here is called Bangchuk Stream (방축천) and it’s running through the western part of town. The large pillars are supporting the government complex pedestrian connections.

Sejong2_5

On a hot summer day I didn’t see anyone in the park except some gardeners or trash collectors.

Sejong City

The best feature of the stream is the digital wall, displaying information like time and weather at night.

 

 

BRT System of Sejong City

Now, let’s get to the most interesting part: the public transport. This is also the biggest problem of Sejong City.

First of all, there is no train station in the city. You would expect a KTX between Sejong City and Seoul but because land owners worried about people commuting by train and not living in Sejong, every rail connection plan was heavily criticized. The nearest KTX station is Osong Station, around 15 km away from Sejong City.

Sejong-BRT-Lane

This is the bus-only median lane in Sejong City. The median lane is elevated, so that buses can pass crossroads and to allow fast travel by skipping traffic lights. In September 2012 bimodal trams have been introduced but the vehicles broke down very often. The bimodal trams were even unable to get up the overpass during snow. The electric, high-modern bimodal trams have been replaced by diesel or CNG buses.

Sejong2_1

Here you can see the elevated bus lane from another perspective. Regarding infrastructure, anything that goes underground or is higher than street level is very expensive. Sejong City will later have a huge financial burden in maintaining the facilities. Seoul is currently removing all elevated structures, while Sejong City just built them.

Sejong2_6

In the eastern part of Sejong the plan is to have underground lanes and underground bus stations are planned.

In the title of this section I wrote Sejong BRT because actually there are almost facilities for a real BRT system:

Sejong City Bus BRT

If you have read my post about the evaluation of Seoul’s BRT, then you’re familiar with the definition of a real BRT system. But here again for new readers: A BRT (bus rapid transit) is a closed system like a metro system. Exclusive bus lanes are prerequisites and users pay BEFORE they get on the platform. Then when the bus arrives, users just get on the vehicle without tapping their card or paying for the ride.

The picture above shows that BRT-station-like facilities exist in Sejong City. But there are no gates at the entry of the platform and that’s why the facilities are useless and it isn’t a real system. If they spend billions by building underground and elevated bus-only lanes to save some seconds, then they should have implemented gate-ticketing outside the platform (and save another 5 seconds!).

Between the shuttle buses I made also the following discovery:

Sejong City OLEV Bus

An OLEV electric bus! OLEV stands for “Online Electric Vehicle” and it was developed by KAIST. Media outlets reported that Sejong City bought an OLEV electric bus vehicle and it’s officially in use since June 22 of this year. Theoretically the OLEV bus could drive 40km after a 20-30min charge. But on my visits the bus was always standing there. It seems that Sejong City doesn’t have much luck with electric vehicles.

If the public transport system doesn’t work well, then citizens of Sejong City could at least cycle:

Sejong City

The urban area is flat, an important advantage for cycling. I can’t understand that Sejong City didn’t build separated bicycle lanes. Korean cities from the 1970s have better bicycle infrastructure than Sejong City. Like sadly common in many Korean cities cyclists have to share the sidewalk with pedestrians. There is a grey, flat surface for cyclists in Sejong. The bike lanes disappears at every intersection.

Sejong2_8

The transport corporation of Sejong still tries to figure out how to organize buses through the city. I saw a couple of temporal bus stops. Daum and Naver Maps show buses routes but there are no real-time bus information in the apps. The bus stations have bus information though.

Neither the bus system nor the public bicycle sharing system attracts many users. So, Sejong City has large areas reserved for parking:

Sejong City

A car is necessary to move around the city. Most of the parking lots are just temporary on undeveloped land but once citizens develop a habit, it’s difficult to change.

 

 

The Apartment-Scape

There’s one more aspect I want to look at: the residential area. Some areas are designated to detached housing but they are still undeveloped. The huge majority of housing is in the following form:

Sejong-Apartments

Apartments clearly dominate the city. This view shows the western area (around the government complex).

Sejong City

I could show you a million pictures of apartment complexes but they would sadly all be the same.

Sejong City

In order to host 500,000 people still many apartments seem to be needed.

Crossing the Geumgang to the East, it gets even more extreme regarding apartment constructions.

Sejong City

It seems that the city is developed in stages: At first, the western side including the government complex was built up, now the eastern side is in development. a research center complex, the KDI school and the new city hall is already completed on the eastern side. The next development will probably happen in the southern part of Sejong City and then the northern part is being built as the last stage.

Sejong City

Regarding housing I would have liked to see more alternative approaches. It didn’t have to be anything exotic or crazy. I just doubt that it is really necessary to build 20-story high towers around the whole city. At night many apartment buildings were dark.

After my visit to Sejong City I realized that there is something missing in all the new town-projects (Songdo, Pangyo, Gwangyo and in Sejong City as well):  motels! There isn’t a single motel in any of these young cities. The reason is that motels are stigmatized in Korea with a bad, shady image. So apartment owners and city officials don’t want to have them in a city. But my personal opinion is that motels and some other features are part of a city because they are simply part of the society. They are important for a healthy, well-balanced urban environment.

The other problem with a lack of motels is that it equals a lack of accommodations for short-time visitors in Sejong City. The ministries are going to have many international events and foreign visitors will have to sleep somewhere close to the venues. Hotels will be constructed in the near future but until then, visitors have to sleep in Daejeon or some of the small towns around Sejong City.

 

 

The Portal to Escape

Because of high demand intercity buses stop at two places in Sejong City: at the government complex and at the bus terminal. I recommend to use the stop at the government complex because it is central and there are more buses passing this area. The portal at the government complex gets you out of the city:

Sejong City

Here you can get a bus ticket to Seoul or Gyeonggi-do from the bus stop at the government complex.

 

 

Conclusion

Compared to other cities (not only Korean cities), Sejong City has many positive features: It’s clean and green. It has a good land-use system. The density is moderate for international standards.

BUT the city is currently a disappointment in my personal opinion. If you have almost unlimited funds and build a whole city from scratch, then I expect something way better and more innovative than what we can see there. Maybe it is just a sad reality that the Korean dream consists of apartment blocks, free parking near the office, artificial streams and lake parks.

A general problem of Sejong City is that not all ministries moved. The national assembly and many important government bodies are still in Seoul. This leads to a lot of travel for higher officials between Sejong City and Seoul. It means that a lot of time and money is spent on buses and trains. The shuttle bus service shows that Sejong City can’t survive without Seoul. Sejong City is still a toddler learning to stand up on its own.

What can you expect from a city that “opened” three years ago? The “completion” is set for 2030. I hope that the public transport system will improve in the future and that more cultural facilities and attractions are built in Sejong City.

About This Author

Co-Author of Kojects. Interested in Sustainable Transportation, Urbanism and Korea.

26 Comments

You can post comments in this post.


  • Wow! Nice information! I didn’t knew much about Sejong City, but it looks like a very clean and organized place. Just kinda deserted much….
    I just missed a bit of information about Hongik University campus in there~ i’m a bit curious about it
    thanks a lot for this post!

    Bea 2 years ago Reply


    • Hello Bea,

      thank you for the comment! The Sejong Campus of Hongdae University isn’t in the new city. It is in the town Jochiwon, 17km north of the government complex. Btw the Sejong Campus of Korea University is right next to the Hongik University Sejong Campus. The former city Hall of Sejong City was located in Jochiwon and that’s why the campuses were called “Sejong Campus”.

      Nikola 2 years ago Reply


  • Thanks for the interesting article, and helpful photos.

    The permanent residents of Sejong City tend to be families with young children (before middle school). These households are willing to relocate from Seoul, and other areas, to Sejong City. This also explains in part why cars, rather than public transit, are key in Sejong City. Also, having a car is really the only means to reach the KTX station or anywhere outside Sejong City.

    Households with older children are less keen to move to Sejong City due to (perceived) lower quality of its middle and high schools, and fewer amenities. They are more likely to commute, or have to residences.

    It will be interesting to see whether when children reach middle and high school age households will remain in Sejong City (rather than move to Seoul). This is clearly the expectation and hope of urban planners.

    Right now Sejong City is a ‘one industry town’. There is a need to get more types of employment and related opportunities in place to create a vibrant and attractive community. The international experience of building new cities is mixed. Most ultimately seem to prosper, but it takes a long time and political will, not to mention public funds. That Seoul is nearby makes the success of Sejong City more problematic.

    Thomas Klassen 2 years ago Reply


    • Hello!

      That’s a great comment. Thank you for your insights.

      These are some interesting points. During my walks I saw indeed mothers with strollers but I didn’t want to make a conclusion based on the few people I saw on the streets. But probably many of these young families couldn’t afford to live in Seoul or the metropolitan area (or at least not afford such a good housing as in Sejong City) and so the decision to move was easier for them.

      You’re right. Companies and non-government sectors are desperately needed.

      Nikola 2 years ago Reply


  • Government enforced “cities” have a short shelf life. Basically, you only live there if you’re forced to. Expect about the same here

    Ron Mexico 2 years ago Reply


    • Thank you for the comment! Brasilia is often labelled as a bad example. I still hesitate to put Sejong City in the same category. Let’s give the city a couple of more years :)

      Nikola 2 years ago Reply


  • It looks horrible, but, I guess no more horrible than most “cities” in Korea—heh. Just less going on.

    Ron Mexico 2 years ago Reply


  • I like your review of the city, congratulations!

    It does point out some of its biggest problems, especially because the benchmark is Seoul. I agree that the spread out model is not the best, I feel its very expensive in terms of money, time, energy, and so on. You should add that after 10-10:30 pm there’s no public transportation whatsoever. Even the bike-sharing system is closed down at 11 pm. Other things you could have noted is that many of the parks and ornamental public lighting is shut down before midnight.

    However, I must point out, there are some imprecisions in your report. There are hundreds of restaurants in the city. They are just all inside the buidings in the Korean-style plazas or shopping malls. The good point of this is that most of them are small businesses, not owned by large conglomerates. Bureaucrats need to have lunch somewhere, right?

    Also, there are way more destinations and departures from the actual bus terminal than from the Government Complex bus stop. As it is, its just a practical place so bureaucrats can commute easier.

    Another point about all the shuttle buses is that they are exclusively for government employees and that they also run circuits inside the city. The city seems to have some problems with the bus driver union and that’s why they are ‘outsourcing’ the shuttles like this.

    You should have visited the place on the weekend: the lake and the streams (there are two, not artificial) are packed with families, children and people riding their bicicles. The library is really a children’s library. Also, since most people have a car and the place is really well connected, they escape to some of the further parks and areas in the river banks or to the nearby cities (Daejeon, Cheongju) & towns (Jochiwon, Depyongri).

    Finally, as you said, if you have unlimited funds and start a city from scratch you would like to do something more innovative. I guess I would do exactly the same thing. But, foreigners as we are, foreign to the political and social process that churned out this city, we don’t really get that this place represents their ideal of development, which is very different from ours. The compact-city model is more European, and the spread-out model (with no public transport) is more US-American. This model is completely Korean, exposing some of their ideals, successes, failures, and contradictions. You will see the ocassional street vendor selling produce, and the obligated drunks roaming the streets on Friday nights.

    Carlos 2 years ago Reply


    • Hey Carlos!

      Thanks for the comment and your experience of Sejong.

      Your last point about how Sejong expresses the political and social processes in Korea is very interesting. That is what I called “the Korean Dream” in the title of the blog post. And in my opinion, it’s a very unbalanced development and so Sejong City somehow doesn’t feel real. But still, we’re looking at an unfinished product (though a city is never “complete”).

      My biggest concern is that Sejong City will have completely other issues than the majority of Korean cities and so government officials won’t know what’s actually happening in Korea and how to tackle the problems. Sejong City disconnects the administration from the society.

      Nikola 2 years ago Reply


      • “The city doesn’t feel real”

        Hahahaha very nice point! As one classmate said it “Sejong city is so artificial, it wouldn’t surprise me if the air was being pumped from the forests of Canada”

        Your last comment about separating the administration from society, I don’t think that happens yet, because of the intense commuting, and because of Korea’s problems being more social than anything. Also it’s such a small and homogeneous country, the same problems are really everywhere. Alcoholics, suicide, low birth rates, youth unemployment, everything is also here.

        Carlos 2 years ago Reply


  • I live in Jochiwon and work in Sejong. The public transportation system seems quite good to me, but I guess as an America I may have very low standards since I can only compare it to what we have back home.

    Jochiwon is growing fast, as many working class people with jobs in Sejong settle there rather than pay for brand new apartments in down town Sejong. It’s also more convenient if you need to travel since Jochiwon has a major train station and is also only 5-10 minutes away from the Osong KTX station depending on where in town you are.

    Tim Ortiz 2 years ago Reply


    • Hey Tim,

      thank you for your insightful comment. The connections from Jochiwon and Sejong are really good because many buses (esp. the BRT buses) are connecting the two places.

      Yeah, the train station is a major advantage of your town! A KTX station should have been in Sejong City :(

      Nikola 2 years ago Reply


  • Jochiwon also feels more lively in the evening because there are two universities in town and there are many restaurants, bars and noraebangs that cater to the students.

    Tim 2 years ago Reply


  • Hi,

    Good information about 세종시. I was wondering how can I go to this city from Daegu? They have direct express bus in Sejong?

    Thanks!

    Andres 1 year ago Reply


  • Whoa so informative. I’ve lived here for almost a year and never knew about some of the stuff you posted lol. Nice!

    Jen Phan 1 year ago Reply


  • Thank you for the information. I would just like to ask if the Sejong Campus of Korea University is located exactly in Sejong City? I would also like to ask if are there any department stores or shopping malls, like ones in Myeongdong, Seoul, in Sejong City?

    John Armada 1 year ago Reply


  • Thanks Nikola,
    I am going to study in the KDI school
    is it near to these wonderful places ?

    Maha 9 months ago Reply


    • Hello!

      Congratulations! KDI is a great school :)

      Yes, KDI is in Sejong City but a little bit outside (or in a currently less-developed area). With a bus it doesn’t take more than 15-20 minutes to Sejong’s government complex.

      Nikola 9 months ago Reply


  • Sejong City is still a young City and will be developed in stages. This is just the beginning. I believe Korea should be very proud of this project considering the high people density, proximity to Seoul and the scale of this new project. In the USA I have not seen anything comparable in scale. Columbia, Maryland or Foster City, California are small projects compared to this. In Sejong City there will be many educational facilities. day care centers, Senior Centers, green areas throughout …. incredible. I do not agree with the pointed problem area as I believe they are exaggerated and do not consider that Sejong City is still a very young urban community that will grow in stages but it has been planned to avoid congestions already experienced in Seoul. Give it time and time will tell.

    aefallon 6 months ago Reply


    • Thanks for your comment. Let’s see how Sejong is going to develop in the future :) We are going to keep an eye on the city!

      Nikola 6 months ago Reply


  • Hello, I would like to know how is the night life in sejong city and also if there is a community of expat living there?
    Thanks

    Kat 4 months ago Reply


  • In thanking you for the extensive research you may have conducted, I wanted to ask you a few questions regarding the the life in Sejong as a foreign student.
    I have been accepted at KDI school, and have been researching and reading lots about the city, and the school.
    What your post (or many other articles i’ve read about the city) is missing is an insight of the life there as an international student.
    Mostly regarding the nightlife, bars, little kiosks with kimbab, and other street food. Would it be safe to assume that nightlife might be non existent there?
    I lived and studied in Seoul before, now, i know that it will be foolish to want to compare Seoul with Sejong. However, I have it there are a few university campuses there… is there a meeting point for students and other individuals to chill and hang out i,e. Hongdae/Itaewon of Sejong?
    Any personal insight regarding nightlife, bars, and/or cool activities to do would be greatly appreciated.
    Jetnor
    Albania

    Jetnor Kasmi 4 months ago Reply


  • Nice!
    I really liked the way you explained your “feelings” about Sejong City, I appreciate the insight. Now, what do you think about looking for a part time job if you are a student there…

    Thanks!

    Ernesto 2 months ago Reply


  • Thank you, very useful information as I have trip to Sejong city coming up.

    Ananda Dias 2 months ago Reply


Post A Reply