Restoring or Killing Rivers? The Political Economy of Sapjil and Citizens Movements in Lee Myung-bak’s South Korea1
Korea’s rampant shoveling politics
In 2008 the government of Lee Myung-bak announced the Sadaegang Saligi (Four Major Rivers, Sadaegang, restoration) project, calling it also Korea’s Green New Deal. Since then, Korea’s Han, Nakdong, Geum, and Yeongsan Rivers have been ecologically and geographically transformed by dredging and weir construction.
The official aims of the project were declared to be: preventing flooding, addressing climate change, resolving water scarcity, and improving water quality. It would also constitute a counter-measure against the world-wide economic recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008, and a key policy component in a ‘low carbon, green growth’ policy against global climate change and resource depletion. In fact, however, transformation of the rivers has had deleterious effects on many local communities and has caused serious social and political conflict.
The idea of large, even peninsula-scale (both South and North Korea) water works has been central to the political career of Lee Myung-bak, who became president of South Korea in February 2008. The idea of a Kyongbu (Seoul-Busan) canal linking the capital and the southern city of Busan first appeared in the 1995 report, ‘A new Strategy for Reshaping the National Land’. It would be 500.5 km in length, 47-55 metres in width, and 4.0 metres in (average) depth, with 17 lock gates, 16 dams, and 1 tunnel, costing 10 trillion won and carrying an annual load of 22 million tons, or one-quarter of the current freight traffic between the two cities.2 Lee, as a member of the National Assembly, took up the idea, but it attracted little attention at that time.
A decade later, in 2005 as mayor of Seoul, he raised the same general idea, for a canal that would be about 540 kms in length. However, the idea did not gain significant public support. A national survey found that 67.7 per cent of people were against the idea, many deeming it preposterous in terms of its economic, technical, civil engineering, or environmental aspects.3
Then, as presidential candidate in 2007, Lee expanded the idea into a scheme for a Korean Grand Canal system, which would have a total length of 3,134 kms (2,099 kms in South Korea comprising 12 canals and including four major rivers; the Han, Nakdong, Guem, and Yongsan, and 1,035 kms, including five canals, in North Korea). It was nothing less than a design for national development and prosperity. It would cost 37.5 trillion won, create 700,000 jobs, lower logistical costs between Seoul, Busan, Incheon, and Taegu, contribute to flood control, regulate water quality, and promote the development of undeveloped local areas.4 As Lee gathered support during the presidential election, this project became the symbolic icon of his Korean growth-ism. Many welcomed it as part of a program to bring economic growth. His electoral triumph was in large part due to his grand economic recovery program rather than his detailed public pledges and despite widespread accusations at the time of serious moral and political flaws.
As president from early 2008, however, Lee bowed to strong public opposition and deferred this grandiose project. However, from November of that same year, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs announced the Four Major Rivers Restoration plan. Work on the Four Major Rivers project then continued between 2009 and 2011, with a budget of 22 trillion won, to which an additional sum of about one trillion won has to be added for interest etc. After massive expenditure on the main rivers, in August 2011 Lee shifted his attention to the tributaries of the four major rivers, spelling out works to be carried out between 2012 and 2015, with an additional budget of 20 trillion won.
Overall, therefore, a staggering 42 trillion won (about $US33 billion at exchange rate of 1,200 won to the dollar) is being appropriated for the construction of weirs and the dredging of river bottoms on the country’s four major rivers and their tributaries.
The Four Rivers and Weirs
Opposition parties and progressive civil society groups - including environmental NGOs and the Peoples’ Committee to Stop the Killing of Rivers - contend that building weirs and dredging the rivers will be more likely to devastate than to restore them. They believe that, while the project will indubitably fatten construction companies, it will cause serious deterioration in river system ecology and damage local communities. They suspect that the “Four Rivers” project is simply a return in disguised form of the discredited Grand Canal project of 2007.
The Grand Canal project provoked intense social conflict and controversy and was criticized for the nation-wide environmental degradation it would cause, and because of its non-democratic decision making procedures. It also seemed at odds with mainstream thinking in other advanced economies because of its focus on revitalizing the Korean economy through construction.5 An August 2010 national survey conducted by Kyunghang Sinmun and the Korea Society Opinion Institute showed opposition averaging 63.5 percent (31.4 percent saying it should be immediately halted and 32.4 percent that it should be ‘downsized’.6 A May 2011 survey using text analysis on SNS (social network service) showed that opponents outnumbered supporters of the project.
Trends of national opinion (figures in percentages)7
During the 3 years from 2008, the Lee government’s persistent promotion of the Four Rivers project suggested an obsession with large-scale public works, stemming from the belief shared by the president and his key staff that it would help to accomplish the so-called “747” vision (annual growth of 7 per cent, per capita income of $US 40,000 within a decade, enabling Korea to become one of the world's top seven economies), proclaimed during the presidential election campaign in 2007. Despite serious controversy, civil society protests, and negative national opinion,8 from November 2009 16 weirs were built and much dredging undertaken.
In securing the necessary budget, and in its efforts to change national opinion, the Lee government adopted illegal procedures and expedients. These are discussed below.
A metamorphosis of shoveling
After Lee assumed the presidency and began pushing determinedly forward with his grand public works design, steamrollering critical or dissenting voices, the opposition quickly took shape, including the
• People’s Action for Nullifying the Grand Canal (link),
• Pilgrims for Life and Peace or Peoples Serving River of Life (link),
• National Association of Professors against the Canal (link),
• A Society of Religion and Environment to nullify the Canal project (link), and
• Peoples who stop the Shoveling in the Four Rivers (link)
Public opposition to the project peaked in mid-June 2008, coinciding with the explosion of public wrath against the government’s decision to resume the import of beef from the United States.9 Anti-government demonstrations and gatherings involved more than one million people.
People who participated in the anti-government candle-light demonstrations over a three month period demanded that the government end the Grand Canal project, stop the privatization of the health care system and state-owned firms, and continue the ban on beef imports from the US. In the face of public wrath, presidential approval ratings fell to 17.8 per cent in July 2008. Just five months into his presidency, the Lee government had lost the political ability to enforce policy. These circumstances forced Lee to step back, saying that he would not push ahead with the policies including the Grand Canal project if people did not agree to it.10
After his apology and retreat, the protest and demonstration movement quickly subsided. Then, however, the Lee government turned its attention to civil society, especially anti-government movements. Police and mainstream media joined in trying to crush critical voices from civil society, the police arresting activists without warrant, blocking gatherings opposing government policies, and suing many civil activists and NGOs including even non-political internet cafés such as the ‘café for people who love to cook’.11 Conservative mass media such as Chosun ilbo, Joongang ilbo, and Dong-A ilbo reported perfectly legitimate gatherings and demonstrations as serious social disorder, and urged the government to enforce the law strictly. One internet blogger who had adopted the pen name “Minerva” was detained on a charge of spreading malicious rumors harmful to the government’s economic policies and instigating distrust in government policy. His essays on the Korean economy and on government policies, while scarcely academic and containing obvious inaccuracies, were popular and read regularly by more than ten thousand people, many of whom seemed to trust them more them than official government pronouncements. Minerva was in due course found not guilty and released.12 Similar cases of retaliatory and aggressive police enforcement sought to intimidate the expression of opinions critical or hostile to the government.
In February 2011, Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, reported that in Korea, especially since the candle light demonstrations of 2008, freedom of expression had been shrinking because of government legal action against dissenting individuals, based on national laws which are not in accord with international laws.13 The Lee government had taken steps to create a climate favorable to itself, while shrinking the spaces available to critical civil society and opposition parties.
In approving beef imports from the US and resuming talk of privatization of the health care system and of state owned firms, the Lee administration tended to announce and enforce its policies unilaterally and with little notice. This was possible because the Grand National Party (GNP), which it dominated, held a majority in the National Assembly.14 Backed by the conservative mass media and judicial system, the Lee government was able to overcome criticisms from civil society and the public sphere and to restrict their activities.
Although Lee in June 2008 expressed regret that his project had been and stated that he would refrain from pursuing the Grand Canal project in order to avoid national conflict over it”, just one year later he and the ruling GNP forced through three media related bills, including revisions to the Broadcasting Law, the Newspaper Law and the IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) Law, as part of the effort to make people better understand his and his government’s intentions. Just seven months after being submitted to the National Assembly, these media-related bills were adopted in July 2009 on a unilateral GNP vote. Public opposition was reported to be running at over 60 percent due to concern over allowing South Korea’s three conservative daily newspapers to gain a greater hold on public opinion by allowing them into the broadcast market.
After passage of the bills, opposition members protest the procedure (link)
Demonstration organized by the national union of media workers against the bills (link)
Lee also appointed close associates to the presidency of two major broadcasting companies, YTN and KBS, brushing aside strong opposition from inside the companies and from opposition parties and civil society,15 and persistently sought to control MBC, a company that had remained relatively independent and critical of government policies.16 In January 2010 the president of MBC resigned in protest at frequent interference by the Foundation for Broadcast Culture (FBC), the regulatory board and a major shareholder of MBC. FBC had abused its authority to make MBC be more pliable to the government.17 According to a February 2010 Kyunghyang survey, 95 per cent of 112 participating journalists said that circumstances of journalism had worsened since the inauguration of the Lee government whose attempts to control mass media and the public sphere threatened freedom of speech and press.18 The Lee administration also controlled mass media through direct intervention in media companies by the use of targeted investigations by the Board of Audit and Inspection.19
In the face of criticisms, the Lee government undertook the transformation of the Grand Canal project into the Four Rivers project. The Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs Ministry (MLTM) officially announced the Four Rivers project in December 2008. According to it, the project addressed five core challenges:
• the renewal of the national territory;
• the securing of water resources against possible water scarcity;
• comprehensive flood control;
• improving water quality and restoring the ecosystem; and
• creating multipurpose spaces for local residents and promoting river-centered regional development.
As part of the ‘Green New Deal’, the project would provide Korea an opportunity to position itself as a powerhouse in water resources. It would contribute to overcoming the recession by creating new jobs and revitalizing local economies, and it would provide spaces and programs to meet the rising public demand for water sports and cultural activities.20 Although the Four Rivers project had a new name, many saw it as the return of the Grand Canal project in disguised form.21
Lee the bulldozer
In June 2009 the MLTM announced its master plan for the Four Rivers project. It had been drawn up in just five months including a pre-economic feasibility and environmental impact assessment. In November the Lee government launched the project. The groundbreaking ceremonies were broadcast live across the country, with the president and other key ministers and GNP politicians participating. Lee said,
“the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project is a project that we should be carrying out at this time. We have not been swayed by political interests, and have instead remained focused on matters pertaining to the people’s happiness.”22
The rush to complete the project in just two years in the face of widespread opposition and without appropriate review or public discussion, stirred social and legal disputes. Lawyers and professionals filed a suit launched by more than 10,000 people nation-wide to cancel it, insisting that the project was in violation of the National Finance Law, the Rivers and Creeks Law, the Environmental Impact Evaluation Law, and the Cultural Properties Protection Law.23 So far, however, courts have refused to accept such suits.
Opposition has been further fueled by the fact that industrial waste and toxic sediment have been found at several construction sites. In October 2010, tens of thousands of tons of industrial waste and surplus soil were found buried under the waterfront of the Nakdong River in Gimhae, adjacent to a potable water intake station that supplies drinking water to some two million Busan citizens.24 Sediments extracted from a Gimhae construction site revealed heavy metals well in excess of levels set in the US by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).25 Another weir construction site, Dalseong, near Taegu, produced a similar result.26
||US (NOAA) limit
Critics express concern that contamination will be unavoidable if the area is dredged according to the administration’s plans. The Lee government has claimed that widening of the catchment area would improve water quality on the Nakdong River by diluting pollutants, but the opposite seems to have occurred, with water quality worsening as algae grew in the stagnant water.
The project has also had the negative effect of causing reverse erosion as the tributaries of major rivers are being rapidly eaten away by dredging of the main course. This damage was anticipated by critics from the beginning of the project. Following the rainy season of the summer of 2011 many tributaries were eaten away by flood waters. Increasing water level differences between the main rivers and their tributaries resulted from large scale dredging caused a reverse erosion process that has seen the collapse of banks on the smaller rivers. Over time, the bottoms of the river will rise again.
Critics also argue that dredging without due legal process had led to the collapse or erosion of bridges on main rivers. The Waegwan Railroad Bridge in Chilgok county, North Gyeongsang Province, a registered modern cultural property built across the Nakdong River in 1905, collapsed in June 2011 after around 200 mm of rain in three days. It had been deemed “satisfactory” by a safety examination conducted immediately prior to the start of the Project. Dredging of the river bottom near the bridge without appropriate treatment is suspected to have caused the collapse. Local environmental activists argued that the work had been pushed forward without proper assessment of safety in order to meet the works deadline. Environmental activists warn of a high probability that accidents such as this will also occur elsewhere. In August 2011, another bridge on the Namji railroad in Changnyong county, South Gyeongsang Province, was reported to be in danger of collapse as a result of pier sinking.27
Collapsed Waegwan Railroad Bridge, from Ohmynews June 26, 201128
Namji railroad bridge, from Ohmynews August 26, 2011.29
출처 : 95% 준설 해놓고 이제 와서 안전점검? - 오마이뉴스
The worst tragedy of the bulldozer-like construction work to complete the project in time has been the death of more than 20 workers in accidents resulting from negligence. Most were people pushed to work with too little rest and sleep. One dump truck driver on the Guem River project said “During 10 working hours from 7 am to 6 pm, I hardly take a rest. This is the hardest job.”30 According to the national construction labor union, most workers on the Four Rivers project have experienced hellish conditions under illegal subcontracting. The union’s survey of 900 workers in 2010 found 81.4 per cent of respondents had experienced late wage payments, and most had been pushed by larger companies to load much more dredged sand than regulations permit and had been driven to over work.31
Officially one of the main claims of the project was to boost the local construction economy, but two years into it most of the benefits have gone to big construction companies rather than to local ones. The major companies have been ruthless in cost-cutting. Between January and June 2010, at the 168 construction sites of the Four Rivers project, there were 9,000 workers and 5,000 pieces of construction machinery, whereas the original contract called for 29,000 workers and 13,000 pieces of construction machinery. Illegal gains of some 2 trillion won flowed to big construction companies.32 According to the Taegu Ilbo, few local construction company workers have been employed, with locals receiving only 10.9 per cent of total wages in the Nakdong River works.33
The Fair Trade Commission suspected the top six construction companies of bid-rigging because of their conduct during secret meetings to discuss bid rigging and their submission of tenders at 95 to 98 per cent of the presumed construction cost.34 In general ‘turnkey’ practices on public works have the effect of pushing costs more than 30 per cent higher than would be the case with competitive bidding.35
The Four Rivers project is far from its original goal of developing the regional economy and the rivers into a nature-friendly zone. Instead, it has produced environmental degradation and cultural and ecological destruction, while channeling super profits to the big construction companies.
Exodus from backwardness?
The President and key members of his staff remain firm proponents of the Sadaegang project. They argue that it reduced damages caused by recent heavy rain and flooding in major rivers. But the argument that “reduced damage” was an “effect” of the Sadaegang project is not persuasive since over the past last several years most flooding has taken place on tributaries and small rivers, and hardly at all on national rivers and streams. So, even though there had been few floods along the four main rivers, the Lee government poured 22 trillion won in to flood control measures.36
In August 2011, President Lee said that from 2012 his government would start work on a new project, mostly on tributaries of the four main rivers, in order to complete the Sadaegang project. Again, his suggestion is virtually certain to lead to policy implementation.
Flood damage areas and Four Rivers under construction37
Mega public works proceed, juggernaut-style. Infamous earlier examples, prior to the Four Rivers project, included the Saemangum reclamation project,38 innovative cities, and many industrial complexes in undeveloped areas such as Cholla and Gangwon. While such projects have fed the construction complex, generated serious social conflicts, stirred land speculation and caused budget waste, in most cases it remains unclear what social or economic purpose will be served.
Once a mega project of the Four Rivers type starts, it is almost impossible to stop it. It is common for proponents of major public works to claim that they will result in substantial regional and/or national development benefits, but the evidence rarely supports such claims. Instead, the common outcome has been social conflict and devastation of nature and community in the vicinity of the construction sites.
Mega public works of the Sadaegang kind become possible because of the constellation of social, economic and political structures which make up the Korean politics of shoveling, in which the major actors are national and local politicians and bureaucrats, a mass-media which is not independent of government and the big construction companies, experts who serve with their expertise, and ordinary people with their strong desire for growth. Lee’s victory in the 2007 presidential election showed how much Koreans wanted to be rich and were captured by growth-ism. In the years since then, they have been paying the price.
Demonstration in support of an organic farm complex which had been forcibly removed in the process of constructing a river park as part of the Four Rivers project. Photo from KFEM, February 2011.39
But there is still a chance for Korea to take a different path. Social and environmental movements against the Four Rivers project and other mega public works on the part of civil society, local residents, and religious groups have slowly gathered strength. They cannot yet stop the juggernaut, but a media relatively independent of government and major corporations has slowly expanded the public sphere in which people can debate and discuss major issues and the requirements for an ecologically sustainable and socially just society.
SoonYawl Park is a Research Fellow at the Asia Center, Seoul National University. He is author of Boolman u Saemangeum (Unfulfilled Saemanguem: Change of social conflict structure and local development discourses), 2009, Hankuk-Haksool-Jeongbo.
Recommended citation: SoonYawl Park, 'Restoring or Killing Rivers? The Political Economy of Sapjil and Citizens Movements in Lee Myung-bak’s South Korea,' The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 48 No 2, November 28, 2011.
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• Sun-Jin YUN, Myung-Rae Cho and David von Hippel, The Current Status of Green Growth in Korea: Energy and Urban Security
• Hong KAL, Flowing Back to the Future: The Cheongye Stream Restoration and the Remaking of Seoul
• Milton Osborne, The Mekong River Under Threat
• Peter Hayes, Sustainable Security in the Korean Peninsula: Envisioning a Northeast Asian Biodiversity Corridor
• Jamie Doucette and Robert Prey, Between Migrant and Minjung: The Changing Face of Migrant Cultural Activism in Korea
1 The word Sapjil, literally to dig with a shovel, is widely used to describe useless work. When opponents of the Sadaegang project say, “Stop Sapjil” they use it to refer to “extra-structure” i.e., the construction of public works for their own sake without reference to social and economic need.
2 For details of Korea’s Grand Canal project, see this link. All links in the article to Korean texts.
3 “How does Lee Myung-bak’s Kyungbu canal break through the obstacle of public opinion?” BreakNews October 10, 2005. (link)
4 See homepage of the Korean Grand Canal and water way forum.
5 Many Koreans see the future and effects of the Grand Canal project through the Gyeong-In (Seoul-Incheon) canal. Work on the Gyeong-In canal began in 1995, but was several times suspended for reasons of economic inefficiency and environmental degradation. It recommenced under Lee Myung-bak in March 2009 and is to be completed by 2011. The name of the canal was changed to Gyeon-In Ara Batgil (or Seoul-Inchon Ara Waterway) in May 2009). See details here.
6 Weekly Opinion No. 53, Korea Society Opinion Institute, 11 November 2009. Link.
7 Financial Times, 4 August 2011. (link)
8 See details, Jaeang u Mulkil, Hanbando Daeunha (The waterway of Disaster: The Korea Peninsula Grand Canal), KFEM et.al, Seoul, Doyosae, 2008.
9 Candle light demonstrations started by high school girls in Seoul became a nation-wide movement involving more than one million people. The main issues included beef imports and the privatization of public firms and the Grand Canal project.
10 “Please remember June 10, Kwanghwamoon ‘candlelight’ and morning dew’” OhmyNews, June 19, 2008 (link)
11 On the latter, see this link. For details of the 65 day candlelight demonstrations from May 2 to July 5 2008, see Candlelight, the 65 days record (2008. Kyunghyang Sinmunsa.Seoul).
12 “ Judge Yu, Minerva not guilty, dismisses violation of the constitution,” OhmyNews, April 20, 2009 (link)
13 For details, “Mission to the Republic of Korea, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of rights to freedom of opinion and expression, UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, 17th Session, 21 March 2011, A/HRC/17/27/Add.2.
14 In the 295-seat National Assembly as of October 2011, the GNP had 168 seats, the Democratic Party 87, Independent 4, other small parties 36 members.
15 The current president of KBS was a special assistant for mass media to the Lee presidential campaign.
16 In 2009, four producers and one scriptwriter from the MBC’s investigative programme, PD Notebook, who had reported on the alleged risk of mad cow disease associated with the import of beef from the US and criticized officials in charge of the trade negotiations were arrested and charged with defaming officials of the Ministry of Agriculture. When all were acquitted by the Seoul district court in January 2010, the Prosecutor’s Office appealed, and when that appeal was in turn dismissed by the same court on 2 February 2010, a further appeal was launched, this time to the Supreme Court. (For details, Report of the Special Rapporteur, op. cit.)
17 The Foundation for Broadcast Culture was founded in 1988 in accordance with the "The Foundation for Broadcast Culture" law as a non-profit organization. See details here.
18 According to Weekly Kyunghyang (No. 862, 29 February 2010), journalists responding to this survey pointed out frequent government guidelines for media reporting on key government policies such as the construction of Sejong city, the import of beef from the US, and accusations against producers of the MBC program which disclosed problems concerning beef imports.
19 “Reappearance of controlled media, from indirect regent to direct intervention,” Kyunghyang Daily 23 February 2010. (link)
20 Government official homepage of ‘Four rivers green Korea’, (Accessed 7 October 2011).
21 For details, see Park Chang Geun (2009).
22 “Four rivers ground breaking ceremony, public opinion beating,” The Hankyoreh November 22, 2009 (link)
23 “Four major rivers project as anti-rule of law, should be judged” Ohmynews, November 26, 2009 (link)
24 “Discovery of waste illegally buried in Nakdong river, again” Ohmynews October 10, 2010 (link)
25 “Huge buried industrial waste, is a drinking water disaster coming to Busan?” Ohmynews October 15, 2010 (link)
26 “Deposit soil of Dal-seong weir, critical level of cadmium leads to itai-itai disease” Ohmynews April 20, 2010 (link)
27 For details “Namji railroad in danger of collapse caused by pier sinking” Ohmynews August 26, 2011 (link)
28 “Local residents’ fury at the collapse of the Waegwan railroad bridge” June 26 2011 (link)
29 “Namji railroad in danger of collapse caused by pier sinking” Ohmynews August 26, 2011 (link)
30 Interview with Ohmynews reporter on February 15, 2011 (link).
31 For details, “Special effect from four rivers project? Construction workers with payment in arrears and who are deeply in debt” Pressian, February 8 2011 (link) and “Blast from four river project turnkey bidding, two trillion has been disappeared” Pressian, February 15 2011 (link)
32 “28.8 billion won disappeared in construction site 24 of Nakdong river,” Ohmynews February 17 2011 (link). For a full report on “Analysis on manpower and machinery for the four river project” see this link.
33“Four rivers project in final stretch” Taegu Ilbo August 19, 2011. (link)
34 The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) is a ministerial-level central administrative organization under the authority of the Prime Minister which also functions as a quasi-judicial body. It formulates and administers competitive policies and handles antitrust cases. (from KFTC homepage).
35 “Four rivers project gave 4.3 trillion won to top ten construction companies” October 11, 2009. Ohmynews. (link)
36 During the past 10 years, only 3.6 percent of total flood damage occurred along the four major rivers (Jung-wk Kim, 2010, Na-neun Bandaehanda (I Do Object: Report on truth of four rivers construction work), Seoul, Neurin Geolum, p.54.
37 Source: Jung-wok Kim, ibid, p.55.
38 Saemangeum Reclamation Project is to transform tidal flats to 40,100ha (land: 28,300ha freshwater lake:11,800ha) with construction of 33 kms of sea dike in Jeollabuk-do, in the south-west. Beginning in 1991, the dike was completed in 2009 despite fierce opposition from local villagers and civil society. As of 2011 the estimated total budget of the project, scheduled for completion in 2020, was about 4.17 trillion won. See this link.
39 Korean Federation for Environment Movements, link.