[EDITORIALS]At long lastThe Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Saemangeum reclamation project could go ahead. With the verdict, the litigation of four years and seven months has ended. Since the work began, consumptive debates about whether to go ahead or stop construction have been repeated over the past 15 years. We hope this verdict will end the wasteful debates.
The ruling came less than three months after the appeals court’s decision. Thanks to the swift decision, unnecessary social conflict has been reduced. The Supreme Court last month decided to handle urgent cases as soon as possible, and the new system was applied for the first time to the Saemangeum case.
In its ruling, the court said if the project were shelved at this point, the national and social interests of securing farmlands would not be achieved and losses will be incurred because of the enormous investments made. The court said the expected environmental damage would not be so serious as to stop the project despite those losses.
The court decided that the value of development for the public interest was more important than the environmental gains from stopping the project. The environment is a value that must be protected by the constitution, but the court also presented the principle that development has an important constitutional value too. In this respect, we welcome the ruling.
About 2 trillion won ($2.05 billion) was spent on the construction so far, and the 33-kilometer (20.5-mile) embankment is nearly finished except for one 2.7-kilometer section. Canceling the project at this point would automatically increase the loss. Although the project started wrongly, the court accepted that there was no other alternative than continuing it. Despite the ruling, environmental groups said they would continue their fight because the project would damage the environment. That is inappropriate. Insisting on development is a problem, but environmentalism with no alternative should end now. We have seen similar problems in Korea’s selection of radioactive waste disposal facility sites and the Mount Cheonseong tunnel for the Gyeongbu express railroad.
The Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that 750 billion won of losses were incurred by halting the project for two years. The construction halt at Mount Cheonseong also incurred 2.5 trillion won of losses. The longer the delay, the greater the loss will be, and the taxpayers will have to shoulder the burden. Therefore, this ruling should be an end to the wasteful battle.
The Saemangeum project is a product of Korea’s distorted politics. Eyeing North Jeolla votes, Roh Tae-woo presented the Saemangeum development plan as an election pledge. Environmental concerns were raised afterward, complicating the problem. President Roh Moo-hyun opposed the project when he was the maritime minister, but changed his position to support it after he won the presidential election.
As the project dragged on, the cost snowballed from 1.3 trillion won to 4 trillion won. Furthermore, in the absence of a consensus, the project ended up in a court battle. Former President Roh Tae-woo benefited the most from the project, and pain was handed over to the people.
Saemangeum is not the only case decided for political gain. Politicians are pushing forward the Honam express rail project despite its low profitability, to win Jeolla votes. Local airports in Muan and Uljin are being built for political reasons.
Saemangeum clearly shows the tragic end of a national project decided under political intervention with a poor feasibility study. The government must remember that the court did not favor the reckless development plan. Some judges said that the government must not be content now, but needs the wisdom to study how it will contribute to the national economy ― environmentally.