Drowned out by the crowd

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Drowned out by the crowd

Yet again, downtown Seoul became the site of a rally late Friday. This time, the cause was the four rivers restoration project, and the gathering was the first mass joint protest against the project to take place in central Seoul. Participants hailed from four liberal opposition parties - the Democratic, Democratic Labor, New Progressive and People’s Participation parties - and civic groups like the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements and other civil action groups.

Among the high-profile protestors demanding an end to the dredging and damming of the four major rivers were party leaders as well as the Incheon mayor and the governors of North and South Chungcheong and South Gyeongsang. Our constitution guarantees the freedom of political parties and civic groups to protest and criticize government policies. But we cannot ignore some serious problems their rally poses.

First, the massive rally could muddle clear judgment on the feasibility of the four rivers project. The project essentially raises scientific issues involving engineering, maritime affairs and the natural ecosystem. Such details should be parsed and discussed carefully indoors, not through loudspeakers and banners in an open-air plaza. When an issue that needs close examination and reason is taken to the midsummer streets, it can only spark emotional outbursts.

The scenes of manic mass rituals on summer nights two years ago over the mad cow disease scare still remain clear in our minds.

Second, the political parties and civilian groups are resorting to easy populism by shouting slogans of “national consensus.” The opponents cite the crushing defeat of the ruling party as proof of public disapproval, but the election was to elect local public offices, not judge government policies and state projects. Public consensus on the four rivers project differs by region and over details like construction methods.

In a JoongAng Ilbo poll last month of 78 local mayors and governors whose regions are affected by the construction, those opposed only numbered 18. DP Chairman Chung Se-kyun demanded that construction cease and proposed a legislative special committee for a feasibility study on the project. But a special committee has limits. The scientific aspects can be eclipsed by politics, causing more harm than good. The government is planning a public hearing, inviting delegates from the government, civic organizations and experts from the opposing and supporting sides. Though late, the public debate can prove more constructive. The public can build ideas and opinions when the issue is debated through logic and scientific wisdom.

Both sides say the rivers must flow. It’s high time that dialogue and debate carve that path.
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