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(News Focus) New administrative city suffers teething problems

All News 09:00 January 18, 2013

By Koh Byung-joon

SEJONG, Jan. 18 (Yonhap) -- It has been more than a month since six major government branches completed their move to the new administrative city of Sejong, but problems have already been springing up, making it tough for public servants struggling to adjust to their new working and living environment.

Under the capital relocation plan first suggested by then presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun in 2002 in a bid to promote balanced regional development and ease overpopulation in Seoul, dozens of government offices and public organizations will move to this city in phases by the end of 2014. When it is completed, about 12,000 public servants will be living here.

Last month, as its first-phase action, about 5,000 officials from six government ministries including the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs moved to their new offices in the Sejong Government Complex located about 150 kilometers south of Seoul.

But just a little more than 1,000 officials have so far settled down in the fledgling city with the rest opting to endure about 4 hours of commute every day from their homes, mostly located in Seoul. Many failed to find affordable homes nearby or cannot live apart from their families due to their children's education or spouses' jobs.

Problems go beyond the lack of housing and separation from their families. Spotty public transportation leading to the government complex, scarce restaurants and hospitals in the neighborhood and insufficient child care facilities are also among the most-cited predicaments that weigh heavily on the daily lives of many public servants.

Most of the problems are being blamed on the seemingly hurriedly-enforced relocation of government agencies despite the fact that construction of buildings and necessary infrastructure is far from being completed. Dust, monstrous cranes and roaring construction vehicles are the first things people encounter every day.

A four-hour daily commute of 300 kilometers, among other things, is apparently sapping the energy of many public servants, resulting in hidden ripple effects on their overall job efficiency, many complain.

"Four hours a day on bus is hard to stand. If there is a traffic jam, it could easily become five or six hours," an official said on condition of anonymity. "It is hurting my back and I doubt that I would get used to this any time soon," said the official who has to commute from Seoul every day.

He said he has to take a commute bus at 6:50 a.m. in Yangjae, southern Seoul, to arrive on time here and has to return home by taking a Seoul-bound bus at around 9:00 p.m., which is the last one available.

"I can't afford to have dinner meetings these days. Once I miss the bus, I have no choice but to sleep in my office," he said.

A longer commute time is not just a matter of inconvenience for such long-distance commuters.

It is also a serious problem that could hurt the overall efficiency in policymaking as many have to move back and forth for policy coordination between Seoul and Sejong as the former is still home to some government agencies, lawmakers and even the president.

Sometimes, officials said that they have to travel between Seoul and Sejong twice in a day in order to take care of meetings or policy decisions.

With a large part of the government complex still under construction and major convenience facilities nowhere in sight, those who opted to settle in Sejong have it no better as they have to endure daily inconveniences from the lack of basic infrastructure.

One immediate problem is how and where to eat every day.

Currently, the government complex is operating four cafeterias monopolized by a single domestic food company, but complaints are rising that they are not sufficient to feed thousands of workers, especially during lunch time.

As an apparent stopgap measure, the complex organizers have divided the lunch time that runs two parts, but it is still not enough to resolve the congestion.

But a more troubling issue is not the long wait, but the quality of food. The cafeterias have been accused of providing simple menus -- costing 3,500 won (US$3.30) -- full of refrigerated foods along with a couple of unimpressive side dishes. Known as "banchan" in Korean.

"It tastes really bad," said another finance ministry official, who recently moved to Sejong alone, leaving his family behind in Seoul. "There is nothing to eat and it reminds me of the food that I used to have in the military. I am not talking about a great meal but don't we at least deserve better than this?"

Usually the answer to low quality is to vote with one's feet. But that is not easy either since there are not many alternatives.

There are few affordable restaurants nearby and it takes at least 20-30 minutes to reach some places to eat. Even if they find one, it would usually be filled with people with a long line waiting outside.

Some just end up buying some snacks and instant noodles and eating at their desks, worrying that they have to squander too much time waiting in line or venturing out to look for restaurants in such nearby cities as Daejeon, which would easily cost them about one hour in total.

Another major problem is that there are no big hospitals around the government complex where people can receive emergency treatment, leaving many public servants and their families vulnerable to dire health conditions.

Inside Sejong City, there are dozens of medical clinics and centers but none of them are equipped for or providing nighttime or emergency treatment. Talks are reportedly under way to attract a general hospital but it is anyone's guess when it might happen.

People here are also facing potential health problems. A recent report by the Korea Institute of Construction Technology showed that it found up to 10 times higher than the permissible level of TVOC, a material known to cause the so-called sick house syndrome, pointing to the poor indoor air quality in the new offices.

Such dire conditions do not seem to be going away anytime soon and they are feared to hurt morale among public servants. Frustrations have already been boiling over as basic living conditions remain far from satisfactory.

On Jan. 7, the public servant union issued a statement, calling for "marked" improvements in living conditions including housing, transportation and child care facilities. It also asked those in charge to take responsibility for the ongoing difficulties and threatened to take every possible action to push through its demand.

In response, the Ministry of Public Administration and Security on Monday started to receive complaints on any inconveniences related to life in Sejong.

Some public servants are still looking askew at the move, pointing out the fact that the ministry cannot resolve all the public servants' issues when it is not among the government agencies whose headquarters have been or will be moved to Sejong.

"It is nonsense. Those who are calling the shots for this relocation do not have to move their workplace. How would they fully understand the problems that we are facing when they do not have to live here themselves?" a farm ministry official said.

Many admit that things will improve in the months or years to come, but they are still wondering why they had to move so hurriedly when there is still a long way to go before construction of buildings and other key infrastructure are completed.

"Had we moved here a few years later or even a few months later, it would not have been as dire as now," said a mid-ranking official who commutes between Seoul and Sejong every day. "At least, don't they have to take care of basic needs for our daily life such as eating, housing and health when forcing us to move here from our hometowns?"

"Obviously, things will improve steadily but unfortunately we have to endure what is going to be a long road ahead of us."


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