Their way or the highwayThese days, the approach to the Wongaksa temple, just north of Seoul, is a far cry from being its usual quiet retreat among the trees. Placards hang everywhere, and stiff wire and a 10-meter tower guard the area. The idyllic religious site on the northern part of the Mount Bukhan National Park looks like the home of a strike or demonstration. And it is.
Sookyung, 58, a Buddhist monk who represents the Korea Buddhist Solidarity for the Environment, has led the sit-down demonstration since early this year. The Seoul Highway Corp. wants to build a road and tunnels through the national park. Sookyung and the other demonstrators plan on stopping it.
"Not only Buddhist monks are participating," Sookyung says, "but also the members of environmental activist groups and other civic groups are participating in this sit-down."
Birds' nests made of stones and sand, and transparent bags filled with green and red liquids scatter the site. The monk says that they are a work by Choi Byeong-su, an artist and environmental activist, who joined the sit-down in March. The liquids are supposed to symbolize the blood of nature.
On July 16, the Seoul District Court issued an injunction against the road construction at two sites where the land is owned by temples. It was good news to Sookyung about but he was not satisfied.
"I really regret that the court dismissed our claim about the infringement of environment rights," Sookyung says, "even if it agreed that the property rights of the temples were being violated. ... Anyway, the builder will have to talk with us because the construction of the road will be impossible without the land owned by Hoeryongsa temple."
About 70 Buddhist monks, including Sookyung, held a street protest on July 18. It ran from Seoul Station in the heart of Seoul to Jogyesa temple near Gyeongbuk Palace. Every three steps, the monks bowed deep, all the way to the ground. Every three steps for three kilometers.
Sookyung hasn't always been an environmental activist. For his first 30 years as a monk, he chiefly concerned himself with self-discipline. "I thought I should not intervene in the affairs of the outside world," he says, "not before conquering the will." But that all changed with the campaign in 2000 to stop the construction of a dam at Mount Jiri. Dobeop, a Buddhist monk and environmental activist, told him, "Numerous creatures are killed if only a single scoop of the earth is dug. Then how many creatures will be killed if a dam is built at Mount Jiri? In such a situation, will Buddhists do nothing?"
Trying to stop the road construction through Mount Bukhan, though, is tougher than the campaign against the Mount Jiri dam. The dam was only in its planning stages when the movement began. However, many parts of the Seoul outer-belt highway have already been constructed.
"An alternative route, which does not penetrate Mount Bukhan is possible," Sookyung says. "We are ready to cooperate with the authorities to devise wise alternatives. Protecting the nature of Mount Bukhan is much more important than the short-term economic effects."
Sookyung admits that even the Buddhist monks have made environmental mistakes, with mountain temples sometimes causing damage. "Buddhist monks should examine themselves," he says. "Although most of them live in the mountains, they have not fully recognized the importance of environmental protection. In the future, I will unveil environment protection guidelines for the Buddhist world."
Tunnel ruling causes parties to dig in more
The recent court rulings regarding the construction of a tunnel through Mount Bukhan National Park has only heated the dispute between the contractor and the coalition of Buddhist and environmental activist groups.
On July 16, the Seoul District Court ruled that Seoul Highway Corp., a construction firm, will not be allowed to continue construction on land owned by Hoeryongsa and Heungbeopsa temples in the national park until the firm compensates the two temples. Separately from the ruling, the court ruled Friday the activist groups must remove the structures, which they had put at the approach to the planned tunnel, to block the construction.
Seoul Highway is satisfied with Friday's ruling. The firm also insists that it is not completely in disagreement with the July 16 ruling. The firm emphasizes that the court rejected the activist groups' contention about environment rights, instead ruling only on property rights.
"The court ruling approves of our road construction in the national park, except at the two temple-owned areas," said a Seoul Highway official, who refused to be identified. "The construction in the two sites will be also approved if we compensate the temples. We are already in compensation talks with Heungbeopsa temple, and promoting negotiations with Hoeryongsa temple." He added that if those temples refuse to reach on agreement, the company could file to expropriate the land, as the government could claim eminent domain.
But Buddhist and environmental groups stressed that the court said in the July 16 ruling that Hoeryongsa temple was a cultural asset with historical importance and the temple could lose its effectiveness as a location for meditation for Buddhist monks due to the construction.
"Buddhist monks from various parts of the country," said Kim Eun-sook, an official at the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements, "gather at Hoe-ryongsa temple for training and development due to the temple's more than 1,000 years of history and the natural environment. The court ruling recognizes the damage that the construction will cause to the cultural asset and environment."
"We cannot accept Friday's court order to remove the structures to block the construction. We will keep the structures and will put in a demurrer on Monday," said Lee Won-gyun, an official at the Korea Buddhist Solidarity for the Environment. "Even if the structures are forcibly removed, the firm cannot build the tunnel, due to the July 16 injunction against construction in the two temple-owned sites."
The road through Mount Bukhan National Park is a part of a beltway being constructed around Seoul. The part of the road to link Ilsan in the northwest and Toegyewon in the northeast began in June 2001, by Seoul Highway, a consortium of eight domestic builders, including LG Engineering & Construction Corp.
by Jung Myung-jin