[Viewpoint] Saemangeum’s political potential

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[Viewpoint] Saemangeum’s political potential

It’s been 18 years since the construction work began, but the Saemangeum project is still in a blank state with a blueprint undecided. Depending on how we draw the picture, it could be a masterpiece, or a junkyard. It will cost about 22 trillion won ($17.8 billion) to block the water and fill the land. If successful, it will provide about 401 square kilometers (154 square miles) of land, about two-thirds of the size of Seoul, and eight times the size of the Palm Islands in Dubai, which are known as the miracle of the Middle East. Considering the growing controversy over the potential environmental effect, it is the last remaining development of such scale.

Moreover, the two grand dilemmas that have been haunting Korea can be found in the still-unresolved Saemangeum project. The first is the dilemma between the environment and development, and the second is the political, economic and social desires that divide the Honam region from the rest of the country. The fate of the nation depends on how we resolve them. The solution needs to include not only the spirit of communication, unity and modesty, but also creativity, imagination and a business-friendly mind set.

In that sense, the Saemangeum project is a suitable challenge for the Lee Myung-bak administration. It contains in itself what the administration aspires to accomplish.

First and above all, if the project is successful, President Lee Myung-bak would accomplish a feat greater than any other president. Even the Grand Canal project does not compare.

Five presidents have been involved in the project, including President Lee. None of them have been able to make enough progress to call the Saemangeum project his own. President Roh Tae-woo started the project, but the Saemangeum project was only a political ambition to win more votes from the Honam region.

President Kim Young-sam was busy cleaning up the mess. As the pollution of the Sihwa Lake emerged in 1996, Saemangeum became a starting point for a more serious environmental debate.

Kim Dae-jung had been interested in the project for a long time, but when he became president, he could not realize any progress due to the intense opposition from environmental groups and related lawsuits.

As the five-year-long environmental trial concluded, the Saemangeum sea wall was completed in 2006. It took 15 years just to block the water.

Finally, we began to contemplate how to fill the land and how to develop it. While President Roh Moo-hyun was expected to make plans, Saemangeum was not at the top of his priority list at the end of his term. Around this time, presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak offered a campaign promise to turn Saemangeum into the Dubai of Korea. While the first picture was presented last week, it is too early to tell if the Saemangeum project will be a success.

Second, the Saemangeum project can be a specific model of the centrism President Lee emphasizes as his political philosophy. Embracing Saemangeum means embracing the Honam region, the common people and the opposition parties. It also fits well into the greater cause of balanced regional development. Even if the project would require excessive resources, opposition parties would not have any justification or reason to oppose it, since the Honam region is their traditional stronghold. Therefore, the government can minimize discord and friction following the development.

Third, the project is a way to deliver the administration’s business-friendly policies. In order for Saemangeum to become an internationally renowned city, it requires investments from domestic and foreign companies. The government would have to drastically ease regulations and provide assistance. We must not forget that Saemangeum is competing against Binhai in China, which is twice the size of Saemangeum. Success will not come easily even if the president personally oversees the project and all of the national capacity is invested.

Fourth, it will be a touchstone of green growth. Saemangeum is still the center of environmental debate. Environmental activists have been watching the progress closely. Therefore, the government needs to make sure the Saemangeum project is based on green growth and green development.

However, we should not be hasty. In order to accomplish a great work, we need to take it slowly with a long-term perspective. In the Year of the Ox, we often say, “See like a tiger, walk like an ox.” While both qualities are important, we have to make sure we walk carefully and slowly like an ox. No clever mind can defeat honest faith. The Lee Myung-bak administration does not need to think it needs to, or is able to, complete the Saemangeum project within its term. Hastiness could turn the jewel into a headache. Let the future generation contribute to the project as well. Let’s leave some room for them to express their imagination, ability and passion.

*The writer is the economic news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

by Yi Jung-jae
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