[Viewpoint] Both sides of the embankment

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[Viewpoint] Both sides of the embankment

I visited the Saemangeum Seawall over the weekend. It runs for 33 kilometers (20.5 miles), linking the Byeonsan Peninsula and Gunjang Industrial Complex in Gunsan, North Jeolla, and it appears to have no end.

As I drove the four-lane road on top of the embankment that splits the seas, I lost the sense of which side was the outer sea. If I had not felt the vibrations of the car beneath me, it would have felt as if I were flying.

When I looked to the misty distance I could just about make out the outline of land, so when you hear that the embankment here is the longest in the world, you really believe it.

The government started building the seawall in 1991 and the work to seal the waters was completed in April 2006. The entire project will be completed by early next year. The grand history of 19 years will finally see its end.

As I looked at the incredible structure, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why does anyone decide to build such an enormous embankment in the middle of the sea in the first place?”

Of course, the project did not start out as an attempt to enter the Guinness World Records as the longest seawall in the world. Nor was it a project to proudly announce Korea’s technology. In fact, the project was intended to create farmlands. Even today, the Korea Agricultural and Rural Infrastructure Corporation is still in charge of the program.

The story starts with an election pledge.

Ahead of the 1987 presidential election, Roh Tae-woo, the the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, announced the Saemangeum project.

It was his plan to earn Jeolla votes by pledging a large-scale, state-run development program. It was unclear whether his announcement got him the votes he wanted, but it’s clear that the Saemangeum project began with politics.

While the tide embankment was being built in the middle of the sea, unforeseen obstacles rose. Environmentalists demanded that the project be scrapped, citing the contamination of Sihwa Lake. The environmentalists’ argument halted the construction and two years of legal battle followed.

Despite the environmentalists’ opposition, the Supreme Court allowed the construction to be completed as planned, ending just three years ago.

Following the completion, a new debate started. Residents of North Jeolla, who had high hopes for the Saemangeum project, began to feel disappointed that the enormous tract of land would be used for farming.

Under the initial plan, the huge lake created by the tide embankment has to be filled to build the world’s largest reclaimed farmland site.

The North Jeolla residents opposed the use of the land for agriculture, noting that Korea has seen surplus rice production. They demanded that the site be developed for their benefit, not for feeding the rest of the country.

In the end, a new conclusion was reached. The area would be developed into a luxurious city for industrial, tourist and environmental affairs. The plan was to build a world-class waterside city that can rival Amsterdam and Venice.

And yet, the plan has only just begun. Just because embankment has been built, Saemangeum will not automatically become a world-class waterside city.

There are two key factors to consider. First, the area needs an international airport that can serve a world-class city, and second, the water quality of the Mangyeong and Dongjin rivers linked to Saemangeum has to improve.

The North Jeolla residents strongly desire the two issues to be resolved, because otherwise the plans for a new city will only ever be a pipe dream.

Am I the only one who sees a clear contradiction between North Jeolla residents’ desire to develop the Saemangeum site and the South Chungcheong residents’ rally to push forward the Sejong city project?

Both projects started with political promises, but the North Jeolla residents have made a practical decision after actual gains.

In contrast, the Chungcheong residents are insisting on the empty words in the promise, and I feel sorry to see them missing the crucial opportunity in front of them.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Jong-soo
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