[VIEWPOINT]Citizens asked to make a choiceYesterday was a day when residents voted on whether to invite the construction of a nuclear waste disposal facility in their administrative districts. One of our country’s long-term tasks, which has been embroiled in conflict for the past 19 years, may find a solution through the first experiment, a residents’ referenda.
Although Aomori prefecture in Japan decided to host a nuclear waste interim storage facility, there was no referendum, or citizens’ vote, in Mutsu city in the prefecture, where the facility will be constructed. The decision on the construction of a nuclear dump, not a mere disposal facility for medium to low-level nuclear waste, was made through the approval of the local parliament alone, without a vote by the residents.
Compared to Japan, we are following a high-level democratic procedure that respects the opinions of local residents.
Thanks to their expectations of regional development accompanying the construction of the nuclear waste facility, the public’s understanding of the facility has increased and a consensus has been reached between the concerned local autonomous governments and residents. Unlike the past, however, it is worrisome that overheated competition between the local governments to host the facility and residents who oppose the facility will bring adverse effects.
The essence of the problem lies in the absentee vote. Requests for applications for absentee ballots from the four local governments that wish to host the facility, including Gyeongju and Pohang in North Gyeongsang province, Gunsan in North Jeolla province and Yeongdeok county in North Gyeongsang province, have turned out to be unprecedentedly high. Compared to the 2 to 3 percent rate in the past, the current application rates for absentee ballots were surprisingly high, with 38.1 percent in Gyeongju city, 39.4 percent in Gunsan, 27.5 percent in Yeongdeok county and 22.0 percent in Pohang city.
The application rate for absentee ballots has increased because the requirements for absentee voting were greatly eased to promote residents’ participation in the vote and special support was promised. Because of legislation to guarantee regional development with economic support, including a special grant of 300 billion won ($287 million), an annual fee of 8.5 billion won for hosting the facility, pursuit of combining a proton accelerator with the facility and the transfer of the main office of the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Co. to the locale, residents in the areas that applied for construction of the nuclear waste disposal facility have a greater expectation of local development than ever.
Therefore, unlike in other elections held this year as well as in the past, the local residents who hope to host the facility were actively participating in the vote, taking relatively more interest in the issue. Seeing this move, some environmental groups and others that oppose the construction of the facility did not hesitate to call for nullifying the referendums, claiming that the votes are the result of corruption in which the central government and the local autonomous governments capitalized on the power of money and government power.
Even in the legislative elections, not a few problems have occurred in the process of campaigns and elections. But the problems were solved through improvement of institutions and punishment of criminals, and elections themselves were never denied.
As the referendum is not an established system yet, there could be many things that need to be improved, but the significance of the vote should not be undermined by putting the cart before the horse, as if the referendum itself had a problem.
For a successful referendum, not only should the National Election Commission conduct a strict and thorough supervision of the voting process but also the local governments and residents should show a high level of political awareness so that the voting is fair and just. By instigating regional sentiment surrounding the construction of the nuclear waste disposal facility, they should not abuse the good intentions of the referendum that respects democratic procedure. Because the area with the highest approval rate will be selected as the construction site, the concerned local residents and autonomous governments should show a high level of grassroots democracy that readily yields to the results of the referendum with a spirit of fair play.
If we fail to select the construction site for the nuclear waste disposal facility again this time as we are entangled in the controversy over the vote, not only will the local governments suffer damage but the country will also lose its honor and all the people will end up carrying the burden. Therefore, the National Election Commission, the government and each local government should supervise the referendums more thoroughly to prevent the occurrence of controversy over the results of the votes. Also, the local residents of the areas concerned should use greater prudence in the matter, so that the problem of constructing the nuclear waste disposal facility that has been adrift for 19 years is resolved this time.
I sincerely expect that the referendum will remain an exemplary precedent in which a conflicting policy issue is resolved democratically.
* The writer is a professor of international politics at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Kyung-min