[Outlook]Canal considerations

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[Outlook]Canal considerations

The president-elect’s pledge to build a cross-Korea canal is buried in political issues, such as the restructuring of the government.
The president-elect’s side says it will follow two main principles in building the artificial waterway.
First, they say they will take the time to listen to differing opinions and persuade people of the canal’s merits. Second, the project will be carried out with 100 percent private capital.
The first principle addresses the issue of listening to the people’s issues with regard to the waterway, and presenting them with a solid case as to why the project is viable. The cross-country canal is bigger than typical large-scale civil engineering projects. If completed, it will connect the two biggest rivers in South Korea with a new canal that splits the country vertically.
Building the waterway is different from other current projects such as roads, tunnels or bridges. The canal will have an impact, be it good or bad, for a very long time. Even though the president-elect’s camp says it was thoroughly examined during the presidential election campaign, the project is not a simple matter. We can’t and shouldn’t hastily come to a conclusion on whether or not to proceed.
The president-elect’s people also say they will listen to the opinions of the people and work to convince opponents. But listening to people is one thing ― persuading them is another entirely. Some surveys show that the number of opponents and proponents are more or less the same, with about 40 percent on either side. There is a long way to go before a consensus is reached. If many people support the plan, the president-elect’s camp can then persuade the minority of opponents. But one year is not long enough to fully consider the impact of the project. During the first year, the president-elect’s people have asked five civil engineering companies to examine the project. Lee’s team also plans to establish a law regarding the canal in the first half of this year. In other words, it appears as if a schedule has already been drawn. If this is indeed the case, the president-elect’s people do not mean to listen to the opinions of others in the truest sense. Instead, it looks like they are listening to other people simply as a formality.
The plan to use private capital doesn’t sound good, either. When a decent company takes part in a project, it needs one motivation -- profit. There are two ways to make profits. First, the project itself may bring in money. Second, a company can think it is better to carry out a certain job after calculating future benefits. There is no problem if the project itself is profitable. But after building the canal, a company can make profits by selling materials and running the waterway. There are several issues in the second case. It is both a burden and an opportunity for a company to be asked to examine the project by the energetic new administration. A company might face disadvantages if it does not take part in the project, or, if it does, it might create good results that benefit all.
Either way is a problem. There is little chance that the new administration, in its pragmatism, will repeat the old mistakes of former administrations. As the president-elect used to work as the CEO of a large civil engineering company, he is unlikely to make unreasonable demands. Then, companies need to have the right to develop logistics hubs along the canal to make profits.
In this case, we have many things to consider. Is it good to leave a project involving the development of the country to a private company which has to prioritize profits? How much profit should companies be allowed to gain if they develop the hubs? What should be done if suspicions arise of corrupt bonds between politicians and entrepreneurs? How will we resolve social conflicts caused by differing interests of different social sectors?
Several principles are needed in building the cross-country canal. As the percentage of opponents and proponents are about the same, it is no good to push the project by counting on the high approval ratings of the early period in office. Some plan to spend a year in persuading the public and four years to implement the project, but this too is a dangerous idea. The canal project is much too large ― we must take our time.
Further, if and when the people agree that we need the canal, the project should be done on the national budget. If it costs 16 trillion won ($17 billion), as President-elect Lee Myung-bak says, it will take 4 trillion won per year. This is doable, as the annual national budget is 200 trillion won. There is no reason to pass the project down to the private sector and raise suspicions about special favors.
It is not about whether we should or shouldn’t do it. If we decide to do it, we should do it right.

*The writer is the chief of the editorial pages of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Tae-wook
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