[INSIGHT]Rescuing failures and our future

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[INSIGHT]Rescuing failures and our future

The Saemangeum project was a collusive agreement made between politicians from the Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces in southern South Korea. The project is a major construction plan to reclaim 40,000 hectares of mud flats in the Jeolla region by building 33 kilometers of huge dikes.

The project was originally conceived by Kim Dae-jung, then the leader of the Peace Democratic Party, to give balance to economic development in Korea, then dominated by the Gyeongsang-centered efforts of President Park Chung Hee. It was eventually adopted by Roh Tae-woo as a presidential pledge in 1987.

But it was a reckless plan, started with little thought about the consequences of the project. It was just part of measures to compensate Jeolla people for decades of prejudice. Its basic plans were drawn up by 1989 and detailed plans were finished in 1991.

The Saemangeum project is a symbol of our country's history of conflict between development and conservation. By 1996, pollution near Sihwa Lake was noticeably worse, and civic groups began to call for the project's cancellation. Since then, a fierce confrontation between civic groups' calls for preservation of clean water and demands for regional agricultural development by people living there has been raging.

Then the government announced that it would reduce the amount of land devoted to rice cultivation by 12 percent by 2005 because of international trade commitments and an oversupply of rice here. With that announcement, the Saeman-geum project's initial purpose, agriculture, was no longer valid. It became a development project that symbolized the government's inability to plan for even 10 years in the future.

The project is now stalled -- it cannot move forward nor can it be canceled, even though about 1 trillion won ($830 million) has already been invested to build dikes.

The presidential candidates were busy making policy announcements, but none of them said a word about the Saemangeum project. Why? If they rejected the plan, their support in the region would go down, but if they supported it, their promises would have lacked common sense.

Does this mean we are going to just sit here and watch a distorted drama played out by regional protagonists, failed planners and civic groups lacking any cohesion?

Kim Seok-cheol, an architecture professor at Myeongji University, has been lecturing at universities in Seoul and Venice. He has spent three years conducting some comparative studies of Vienna's Laguna and our Saemangeum, which are projects similar in scale.

Mr. Kim believes, he says, that Saemangeum city should be a composite of a tidal embankment, a port city and a river.

Luckily, only 4.5 out of 33 kilometers of the embankment have been completed so far. If we add an embankment between the two drainage flood gates already built, the part that has not been completed will function as a barrier gate, separating the harbor into inner and outer areas.

Venice is a man-made city of 140 islands, and Saemangeum can be made into a city while protecting the ocean there. If the project is completed that way, the entire Mount Bonghwa region would be a center point to connect ocean and land including Gunsan Port, the Seohaean Expressway, the Honam Express Railway, Gunsan Airport and Gimje Airport.

By linking these terminals to Saemangeum and to Incheon Airport, Mr. Kim hopes to turn the city into a gateway of Northeast Asia connecting the entire western sea region.

Mr. Kim's plan is one to remedy a mistaken past. There will be areas in which his theoretical plans could be supplemented technically and practically. But at least there is a chance in his plans to salvage something.

Confrontations between development and preservation cannot solve this problem. His plan is worth attention from the government.

I strongly recommend Mr. Kim's approach to President Roh Moo-hyun. Citizens are no longer interested in the revelations of political scandals of the past. Our leaders should be able to provide hope while offering alternatives for building our future.

I hope Mr. Roh will model his agenda like Kim Seok-cheol modeled his plan to salvage a failed project. Learn from him how to foster hopes and dreams as Mr. Kim did with Saeman-geum city and put them into practice.

* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kwon Young-bin

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