BUYING A house of your own in Korea is now harder than ever. Recently, housing prices have risen dramatically, resulting in an increased burden on the general population. Some claim that the housing shortage is due to land scarcity that could easily be fixed with the construction of houses on undeveloped land. However, the undeveloped land that could be potentially used to build houses is within Korea’s green belt region. The green belt region is an established area set by the government that is restricted from any further land development. The region has been maintained in an effort to prevent urban sprawl and secure green space in Korea. However, in September 2018, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport announced plans to cancel certain green belt regions to open the land to residential development. Since this move comes unilaterally from the federal level, city officials, specifically those in Seoul, have spoken out against the reform. While the ministry is attempting to reach a compromise, current tensions leave us questioning what modifications this plan might have in the future.
The evolution of the greenbelt region
The greenbelt system was first introduced in the 1960s under former President Park Chung-hee to combat the effects of rapid industrialization. The growth in population during this period led to increased traffic, housing, and environmental problems such as overcrowding and air pollution in Seoul and other large cities. Benchmarking other growing metropolitan cities like London, the implementation of the green belt region had seven foundational purposes*:
1. To strictly control the development in Northern parts of Seoul close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in order to ensure national security
2. To eliminate illegal suburban shantytowns surrounding Seoul
3. To prevent urban sprawl
4. To harmonize metropolitan and suburban growth
5. To control land speculation in the metropolitan region
6. To protect agricultural land
7. To protect the environment and natural resources
President Park set the first green belt region on July 30, 1971, which included about 5397.11 km2 around all of Korea.
At the time, this was a sudden and unprecedented change in Korea. Many people, including landowners of the newly set greenbelt regions, were indignant about the change. Property right restrictions in the greenbelt region meant a fall in property value for land owners, since they were unable to modify the land to increase their profits. Considering 80% of the green belt region was privately owned as of 1998**, support for deregulation of the greenbelt has been strong and still remains a major source of contention today.
Since its establishment, there have been continuous reforms—additions and cancellations—to the green belt region, including numerous presidential election pledges to address the issue. For instance, according to JoongAng Ilbo, former President Lee Myung-bak cancelled 88 km2 of green belt regions to build bo geum ja ri houses, low-cost houses aimed for the low-income population. Former President Park Geun-hye also pledged to build a high-tech industrial complex in the green belt regions near Seoul, and ultimately used 11 km2 to build rental houses called “New stay” houses.
After all these reforms, the green belt region in Korea has been reduced significantly to 3886.6 km2. The green belt in Seoul now takes up about 149.140 km2, which is approximately 25% of all of Seoul. Now the government is looking at reducing this even further.
A solution to the soaring house prices
The green belt issue has always been controversial, but currently, house prices have led to new levels of public outcry, once again calling upon the use of green belt regions. According to UPI News, the average cost of houses in Seoul has reached over \700 million and is continuously on the rise. In the last year, the price of apartments in Seoul increased by 7.37%, and by 1.17% just in the last month. As a result, the rising price of apartments has heightened the burden of repayment that middle-income families with an average amount of loans face when buying a medium-priced house. With these alarming conditions, residential development seems increasingly desirable.
Part of the reason for the forever-increasing house prices is the scarcity of housing in relation to the demand. According to Statistics Korea, the ratio of households to the number of houses available in Seoul is below 1:1, at 96%, meaning that not every household can possess their own house. Furthermore, real estate experts mention that owners of multiple homes in Seoul reduce the number of available houses for those currently looking to buy property.
The Yonsei Annals interviewed real estate agent Lee Min-soo of Doosan Real Estate Agency in Seoul to gain further insight into the factors that contribute to the rise in housing prices. “I think it is due to the Korean citizens’ obsession with owning land and the fact that government officials tend to amend real estate laws for their own benefit [as landowners].” Whereas many would consider an increase in the number of houses as the solution, Lee disagrees. “It is not only the problem of the supply of houses, because, in fact, there are empty houses,” says Lee. Therefore, the problem lies not only on the insufficient supply of houses but also on the affordability of houses and the question of who owns them.
In an attempt to alleviate the housing burden on the general people, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport plans to develop 300,000 houses around Seoul on the cancelled green belt region to stabilize housing costs. The plan includes forming four to five novel large-scale residential zones between Seoul and the first five new towns (Bun-dang, Il-san, San-bon, Jung-dong, Pyeong-chon) with 200,000 houses, leaving the rest to be decided upon the coming year.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport regards this development as an inevitable reform when it comes to the stabilization of house prices. In an interview with Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, Minister Kim Hyun-mi of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport emphasized, “We have no other choice but to utilize parts of the green belt region in Gyeonggi-do that are damaged and of low quality,” and that “Seoul is not an exception.” Critics of cutting the green belt in Seoul often point to Seoul’s surrounding districts as a better place to use for development.
However, Minister Kim points out that the high demand is for houses that are specifically in Seoul. In order to meet such demands of the public, at least some of Seoul’s land also has to be sacrificed instead of only the land in Gyeonggi-do, the metropolitan area surrounding Seoul. “Gyeonggi-do’s green belt and Seoul’s green belt shouldn’t be dealt with differently, as both are valuable land. However, we think it is fair to use the land corresponding to citizens’ demands,” says Minister Kim. The 300,000-house expansion plan will not take place in Seoul and Gyeonggi regions in a perfectly even manner, but the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport aims to use both regions.
Environmental concerns and alternatives
Even before the official announcement, on September 20, 215 environmentalists protested in front of the Blue House when the government was hinting at the cancellation of the green belt. According to The National Network of Environmental Organization of Korea, these environmentalists protested that “Cancelling the green belt regions in the capital area is not a solution for rising house prices,” in response to the potential greenbelt reform. After the official government announcement, the city government and the citizens of Seoul continued to protest against the cancellation of the greenbelt, arguing that the government needs to prioritize the environment and protect this region. Seoul citizens protested in front of the city hall and the Blue House, and also led online petitions on the Blue House website regarding this issue. The city of Seoul refers to the green belt as a “life belt,” claiming that protecting the green belt region is important because it is the only remaining “green” area of Seoul. The citizens of Seoul and environmentalist groups argue that the green belt region should be left untouched for the future generation to use.
While the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport has complete jurisdiction over green belt areas, the Ministry has agreed to negotiate with officials in Seoul, including Mayor Park Won-soon, over the greenbelt reform. However, the Ministry has announced that if no compromise is met, the Ministry will continue its plans to cancel parts of the region without Seoul’s support.
Beyond reasons for the greenbelt’s protection, critics of reform also cite several flaws in the Ministry’s plans. First, the addition of new houses does not guarantee that the housing will be affordable. In an interview with the Annals, real estate agent Lee Min-soo says, “The addition of houses will simply instigate speculative forces,” indicating that the reform might backfire and solely benefit investors and buyers of land who aim to develop and sell it for exorbitant prices. According to Hankook Ilbo, critics refer to the example of former President Lee Myung-bak’s bo geum ja ri houses in Naegok-dong of Seocho-gu, and Segok-dong of Gangnam-gu. Here, houses were built on cancelled green belt land with an aim to lower house prices, but ended up having the opposite effect of becoming “lotto apartments***” that brought about speculative forces.
Moreover, according to Maekyung Economy, the new housing could actually exacerbate the housing problem by incentivizing more people to move to Seoul. This conflicts with one of the initial purposes of setting a green belt region in the first place, which included preventing urban sprawl.
In the process of negotiating with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, the city of Seoul has presented alternative ways to help increase the supply of houses without using the green belt region. These alternatives include a proposed plan to supply 62,000 houses by using abandoned land and commercial areas, and by raising the floor area ratio of semi-residential areas.
To delve into the consequences of cancelling the green belt, the Annals interviewed Professor Greg Brooks-English (Assistant Prof., University College), who helped found the Yonsei Student Climate Action Network (YSCAN) in an attempt to preserve energy and pursue sustainable development at Yonsei University. Professor Brooks-English agreed that there are possible alternatives to the cancellation, and that “Taking the green belt land is just one of the possible ideas.”
“The plans presented by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport are flawed,” said the Professor, “as there are other alternatives to solve the crisis of house price, such as increasing the height restrictions of apartments and rezoning commercial areas to residential ones.” He also proposed a way to preserve the “greens” of Korea, “by setting a fixed quota of land for the green belt, and if parts of the green belt region are to be used for building, then other areas should be newly classified as green belt regions to compensate for the loss.” In this way, a fixed amount of environment would be conserved, while also contributing to the development that the government desires.
When asked about the positive effects of having a defined green belt region, Professor Brooks-English said that “It is a powerful way to sequester carbon, reduce the heat island effect, provide recreation for people, and purify air.” He believes that the sequel to the miracle of the Han River will be the development of green and clean energy. Therefore, he argues that “The policy of using the green belt to increase supply is short-sighted, especially considering the climate crisis.” In addition, in regards to the economic consequences, he also provided a unique stance, claiming that the green belt can work to “increase density so that the cost of services and infrastructure becomes cheaper.”
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Both protecting the environment and increasing the supply of houses are major concerns to Koreans today. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport and the city of Seoul are in an ongoing conflict concerning the cancellation of the green belt regions. The green belt region is responsible for the small portion of “green” within Korea’s highly industrialized society, while, simultaneously, citizens are struggling to secure a house of their own. The seven foundational objectives of the green belt are trying to be sustained in the society today. However, recent reforms aim to fulfill the immediate demands of the general population at the cost of breaching the initial objectives. Will the development of the undeveloped region be beneficial in the long term? The Korean government and the city government will continuously carry out negotiations to reach a consensus.
*Chang-See Christine Bae, “Korea’s Greenbelts: Impacts and Options for Change”
**Chang-See Christine Bae, “Korea’s Greenbelts: Impacts and Options for Change”
***Lotto apartments: Apartments that are sold at low prices to randomly selected low-income people, of which costs are later increased to meet the price of surrounding houses in that region