Saturday, November 27, 2010

On the inevitable dominance of Seoul in South Korea

The recent shelling of South Korea's Yongpyeong island by North Korean-South has obviously been quite disturbing. It likely won't come to war, notwithstanding being the most substantial confrontation between the Koreas since the armistice. If it did come to war ... Anatoly Karlin's scenario for a second Korean war does have an eventual South Korean-US victory over the North, but one coming at the cost of hundreds of thousands of casualties--military and civilian, mostly North but also South and American. The economic costs, both directly to the Koreans and indirectly to the wider world, almost don't stand thinking about.

One of the most worrying things about North Korea's military threat to the South lies in the fact that Seoul--the historical capital of Korea, and a metropolitan area home to half of South Korea's 50 million people--is within range of North Korean artillery. Although--as Karlin notes--growing military superiority may allow for successful preemptive strikes, and despite ongoing efforts to build sufficient shelters for Seoul's population, the city is obviously at risk. Close to the 38th parallel that inspired the post-1953 DMZ, Seoul's prosperity is fragile.

Over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Charli Carpenter put forward a proposal by one Robert Kelly to diminish South Korea's vulnerability to the North by decentralizing the country, moving population from the northwest of the country to the southern areas.

The various criticisms of this plan--that it would be very expensive, that it would take a long time to make any noticeable shift in the distribution of South Korean population, that it would be illiberal, that it would be a waste of money once reunification/regime change came, that it would be illiberal, that expecting South Korea to move its capital from Seoul would be as plausible as expecting France to move its capital to Lille or Lyon, and that given South Korea's small size it's not obvious that even a partially successful decentralization would make much difference--all stand. The first comment is the one I like best.

Cities are built on geography and human inertia. What starts as trade routes and resource-rich regions result in the financial, government and service structures to support those primary industries. That’s what causes the influx of immigrants, the concentration of wealth, and eventually the self-sustaining nature of the city.

Cities don’t die unless that fundamental geographic economic advantage disappears. While there might be ways of encouraging growth in the south, there won’t be a fundamental shift of population without a regional economic incentive.

Moving the government buildings from one spot to another might shift a population, but only a small portion of it. Only 16 US state capitals are located in the largest city of the state, after all.


The commenters, it should be noted, did agree that inasmuch as state policies discouraged investment and development outside Seoul, these policies should be changed to favour the growth of the second tier of South Korean cities.

This sort of sentiment isn't new. The idea of decentralizing population and industry in a centralized country was most prominent in France, where geographer Jean-François Gravier coined the phrase "Paris and the French desert" to describe the dominance of Paris over the rest of France. Owing to early declines in birth rates, and perhaps also the concentration of immigrants in Paris (and other cities), many regions of France saw their populations stagnate and decline, while Paris become ever-more powerful in a centralized republic. After the Second World War, systematic government planning did aimed to promote decentralization.

Industrialisation in France was based, as in other countries, on coalfields. The black countries in the North, Lorraine and Massif Central were the first centres of the steel, chemical and textile industries. But the second phase of industrialisation was of greater advantage to Paris, as major industries, such as cars, aircraft, engineering and electrical goods, began operations in and near the city. In one hundred years, the population of the capital, which was already 2 million at the end of the 19th century, grew fivefold.

[. . .]

The planning body, DATAR, was set up in the early years of the Fifth Republic (1963). Its work is centralising by nature, but its effects have been contradictory. At first, the division between Paris and the “provinces” (a condescending term, now replaced by “regions”) was accentuated. Paris, the centre of politics, the economy, research and culture is also the hub of infrastructure networks. The web of roads and railways was strengthened by new forms of transport: motorways, high-speed TGV trains and airports.

Furthermore, industrial policy in the Gaullist period focused on aerospace and the nuclear and electronic sectors for reasons both military and civilian. This planned industrial policy, based on nationalised industries, was the origin of what are now called new technologies. But the new technologies were located in the Paris region, where they had all the elements required for their development: grandes écoles, universities, CNRS and the military-industrial complex.

This process of concentrating highly qualified employment in metropolitan areas was extended to other cities. Those that already had an industrial, university and technological basis, such as Grenoble, Toulouse and Bordeaux, benefited from the establishment of aerospace industry, nuclear and electronic research centres and became science cities. Other regional cities created science parks, such as Montpellier, Lyon, Nancy, Metz, Rennes, Nantes, Lille, Nice and Marseille. Publicly funded science research was more evenly spread across the country and privately funded research set up closer to universities.


The net effect may have been to decentralize France, to allow second tier cities to emerge as niche competitors to Paris. French efforts to decentralize the country, however, had two negative effects.

  • First, as Bernard Marchand wrote in his September 2010 essay "The concept of "territory" in French planning: An essay in dialectical analysis", French planning not only aimed to support regional centres, but to support rural territories which possessed unviable economies at the expense of urban and suburban areas which desperately needed attention and government investment, what he called an overemphasis of territory over households.

  • Secondly, trying to diminish Paris risked harming Paris' status as a world city. In a very real sense, Paris' competitors aren't Lille and Lyons, but rather London and New York City. Depriving Paris to boost the second tier of French cities would harm Paris' rank in this clasisfication, and, by extension, France itself.


  • The same problems would apply to Seoul and South Korea. Indeed, Paris and Seoul are classified by one author as "macrocephalic" cities, places where geography and governance and economics and population have concentrated to produce one urban centre that completely dominates the rest of the country. (Vienna and Budapest, former imperial capitals now the metropolises of much smaller rump states, and a Bangkok more developed by far than the Thai countryside, also fall into this category.) Sociology Danny Dorling's 2008 paper "London and the English Desert: The grain of truth in a stereotype" argues that Greater London is starting to acquire a similar position of dominance in England. Other cities--Tokyo-Yokohama in Japan, Buenos Aires in Argentina, perhaps, Johannesburg in South Africa, or Baghdad in Iraq--might be in similar positions.

    Is it in the interest of the South Koreans to decentralize their population so radically? Military vulnerability aside, it doesn't seem to be the case. Regardless of what policies have encouraged Seoul to become so dominant in South Korea's urban hierarchy, and the legitimacy of these policies (the decisions of military dictators to concentrate everything in the national capital comes to mind), Seoul is now what it is. Trying to take the metropolis apart--as opposed to trying to promote growth in other major urban centres, and perhaps using high-speed commuter connections to functionally fuse more cities in South Korea with the capital--would involve massive and expensive population shifts, to say nothing of the strong possibility that there might not be many places to hide in a compact South Korea. It would certainly hurt Seoulites efforts to promote Seoul as a world city.

    South Korea's population is caught in an unenviable situation, living in a thriving city that's at risk of devastation. In this respect, Seoul might not be unlike the cities of the Cold War world, which regardless of their ideological affiliations were vulnerable to annihilation in the space of a half-hour at most. I can only hope that the experts are right when they say that an escalation to war is unlikely, and that the Koreas--even North Korea, however unlikely it may be--will be as lucky as the rest of the world was.

    5 comments:

    Sublime Oblivion said...

    I would argue that Moscow is in an analogous position in Russia to Seoul in S. Korea or Paris in France. Though it contains only about 8% of the Russian population, it carries along the bulk of political power, hi-tech industries (to be further - and IMO needlessly - reinforced by Skolkovo), education, and about half the culture (which is shared by St.-Petersburg).

    I don't think such concentrations are good for the country, even at the expense of having one of your cities enter some kind of "world city" list. Something like the German system is better, IMO, where the biggest cities are far more livable and suck in fewer resources from the rest of the country, while having their own niches where they compete with the best. E.g., for Germany (which has a roughly comparable population to France or S. Korea): Berlin - culture; Hamburg - commerce; Frankfurt - finance; Munich - culture and commerce.

    Damien Sullivan said...

    There's also Jane Jacobs' theory that floating currencies tended to lead to one dominant city, as terms of trade fluctations favored the largest exporter. US escapes this somewhat by being so big, and having our export region shift around as things change.

    Not sure why making a world city list is that big a deal.

    CJWilly said...

    I agree with SO. The German or American models are better IMO.

    Over-centralization has a way of distorting the entire country around a center, leading to neglect of the provinces (everywhere in Britain that isn't "South") and astronomical costs of living (and ensuing social stratification).

    This doesn't even strategic or security aspects. Historically for France, a great deal of our insecurity vis a vis Germany was due to Paris' (relative) proximity to the border. And, if we imagine that a nuclear terrorist attack were to strike London or Paris, it could mean the end of a tenth of the population and disrupt a quarter of all national economic activity. In short, something actually existentially threatening for national life in a way which an attack on a large German or American city probably would not be..

    Randy said...

    @ Sublime Oblivion: I dunno. For countries of a certain size, having such high degrees of concentration of population and still more industry etc in a metropole is common: Paris in France, London in the United Kingdom, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Mexico City in Mexico, Bangkok in Thailand ... The main exceptions are in countries which became unified entities at late dates (Germany, Italy, Poland) and/or were explicitly federal and decentralized from the start (Germany, United States, Brazil).

    In the particular case of South Korea, I think that the existing centralization can't be reversed. Efforts can be made to promote growth in the second tier of South Korean cities, but it's important for South Korea to avoid the French trap of overinvesting in non-viable rural area and underinvesting in at-risk cities.

    @ Damien: I suspect it's a matter of status. Having Seoul be recognized as a city of global import matters to South Koreans, perhaps as a way of catching up with Japan, likely as a matter of national pride. Undermining this project could be problematic.

    @ CJ Willy: Agreed. If South Korea had a more balanced urban hierarchy, it might well be just as prosperous and a greater share of its population would be less insecure.

    Cicerone said...

    There is another interesting thing going on: Downwarfd risks in fertility. Seoul as a city has an even lower TFR than South Korea itself, it hovers around 1.00. So in future, Seoul will desperately need young people to fill up it's population. I think that will be easy, because every young Korean wants to live in the capital. But what will happen? The countryside, barely above lowest-low-fertility, will empty up even faster, so that Seoul, with even lower than lowest low fertility (I think there has to be a new word for TFRs around and below half of replacement level) could maintain it's population level.

    This will also happen in Japan, although at a far less extreme outcome. Tokyo (23 wards) has the same TFR as Seoul but is slightly smaller and has three times the population reservoir.

    Moscow can also suck up Russias brightest and best population to replace it's dwindling native population.

    I heard some time ago that there were similar worries in France a century ago. But the city of Paris is too small and it's suburbs have a healthy birth rate.

    What do you think about that?