[Viewpoint] Changing the rules for river projectFormer President Roh Moo-hyun and his administration failed because of the dichotomy in his governing philosophy, insisting that whatever they did was ethically good while whatever others did was bad. They ignored means and method if the cause was good.
Levying a comprehensive real estate tax on top of the regular tax was at odds with the principles of taxation, but that was obscured by the justification that it was necessary to prevent real estate speculation. Sejong City, the new administrative capital, was also a project that should not have been promoted, but the cause ?? balanced regional development ?? prevailed over the opposition. What happened in the last administration can be left behind. But that should not be the case with the incumbent one.
A few days ago, the government presented a plan to revitalize the four main rivers of Korea. The plan aims at securing more water and preventing floods by constructing dams on the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan rivers. There is nothing wrong with the cause of solving the chronic national problem of water shortages. It will prevent floods and make it possible for people to traverse the country by bike, since the government plans to create a total of 1.400 kilometers of bicycle routes along the rivers. It also plans to operate sightseeing boats on the rivers, and the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has a plan to create beautiful riverside villages.
However, there are a few problems with the four rivers restoration project. The government has taken one unnecessary action to facilitate the project.
In principle, national projects that cost a lot of money like this one have to be preceded by a feasibility study. We must first determine whether the project is economically viable and helpful to the people.
The purpose is to prevent the government from spending thoughtlessly. We have often seen the government and the political community exhaust public funds on projects that do little to help the country. With just a minimal system of checks and oversight, we can reduce the people’s tax burden.
With these concerns in mind, a law requiring the feasibility study was enacted in 1999. All national policy projects that cost more than 50 billion won have to go through the process of a feasibility study.
However, the government changed the law about a month ago - to be exact, it changed the implementation rules of the national finance law. By doing so, it ensured that the four rivers restoration project would not be subject to a feasibility study.
In fact, the law had a clause on “projects exempt from feasibility studies.” But its application was strictly limited to projects related to national security or inter-Korean exchange and cooperation. This was intended to prevent misuse of the clause.
The government, however, included projects for natural disaster prevention and balanced regional development to the exemptions last month. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs claims the four rivers restoration project is a “natural disaster prevention” project.
That the project aims to prevent natural disasters or stimulate balanced development is beside the point. The problem is the scale of the project. The investment required will be a minimum of 15 trillion won. In fact, the government once announced it would cost 18 trillion won.
The government must not go ahead with such a large-scale project unilaterally. And it is an even more serious problem that the administration changed the law to do so. I am concerned: too many projects have ended up being an enormous burden on the people because the government did not go through a feasibility study or bypassed it with a fake one.
Yangyang International Airport, in which the government invested around 350 billion won, has been recording a huge deficit each year, and Uljin Airport, which cost around 130 billion won, has not even opened yet. What about the international airports in regions such as Pohang, Cheongju and Muan? Then there is the Incheon Airport Railway, which the government was forced to turn over to Korail when it could not cover its losses. If the four rivers restoration project is absolutely necessary, the government should have behaved with more confidence.
Even if the project has been exempted from a feasibility study, I think the government should have volunteered to have it undergo the study.
Even if the cause is just, formalities and processes should not be ignored. Wasn’t this what we learned from the candlelight vigils that broke out around this time last year? It is a pity that the lesson we learned through all that fuss seems to have disappeared as shown by a statement of the chairman of the Future Planning Committee. Such abuse of authority is possible precisely because he believes in the pursuit of purpose for its own sake.
It is not too late. The government should start a feasibility study now to get an objective evaluation on whether the project is worthwhile. If that is too difficult, it should at least revoke its revision to the law’s implementation rules. It must make this the last project to be exempt from the feasibility study.
It will not be an easy decision, but it needs to be done to earn the people’s support.
*The writer is a senior economic news reporter and editorial writer.
by Kim Young-wook