[Viewpoint] When to give way to the river’s flow

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[Viewpoint] When to give way to the river’s flow

Rivers have a special meaning on the mountainous Korean Peninsula. News from faraway lands always flowed in via rivers, in exchange for stories from small towns in the countryside. When life is hard, people go out to the riverside and look at their reflections in the water. The river courses through valleys and mountains and travels through fields into the ocean, and people see their own lives mirrored by the river’s flow.

To us, rivers are a lifeline, and they symbolize a conduit for communication and the hope of the unknown on the other side of the mountain. So the rivers on the Korean Peninsula have anthropological significance, as they represent the soul, sufferings and sorrow of the people.

And if the government had approached the rivers from an anthropological perspective, it could have saved itself a lot of trouble. If it hadn’t gone against our cultural idea of a river - which has an accumulated history that spans over thousands of years - and imposed its geographical and political ideas, the commotion of the last two and a half years would have ended much sooner. If the government had not upset the slow aesthetic of Koreans, who have quietly endured the rivers’ angry floods, the four rivers project wouldn’t have turned into a nuisance for the Lee Myung-bak administration. The rivers, long a symbol of communication, have turned into a symbol of isolation and political strife.

I personally agree with the rhetoric behind the decision to meddle with the innate characters of Korea’s rivers. If the rivers of Manchuria and Siberia resemble a big, gentle dog, the rivers of the Korean Peninsula are like a wild, reckless wolf. Where else do you find a river that originates at an altitude of 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) and reaches the ocean after running only 200 kilometers (124 miles)? The Han River is not the silent Don River, which travels leisurely across Siberia. The Nakdong River is not the Amur River, which idly runs across the vast fields of Manchuria.

The geopolitical development theory behind turning the riverside towns into 21st century dynamos by taming the fast streams, clearing the pollution and developing the banks to build new value is certainly not unconvincing.

However, when the four rivers project, the bridgehead of the Lee administration, was met with stubborn and intense resistance, it became a different story. It is not right for a politician to be obsessed with what he believes to be right when he knows the risk of complete failure.

We are not talking about the Seoul-Busan Expressway or the Saemaul Movement, which the authoritarian regimes pushed forward unilaterally. The administration should not be so confident that future generations won’t judge the project harshly.

Politicians must be shrewd enough to know when to pit their enemies against each other and wise enough to be able to harmonize different opinions and ideologies. The reservoirs remind me of the dead grand canal project, and the excavators are seen as monsters driving away water birds.

The opponents who predict disaster from the construction might be unscientific and provocative, but if their arguments win enough support, these activists will soon turn into leaders. One needs an exit strategy after success in economics, and an exit strategy after a failure is even more important.

The administration does not need to feel defeated for losing its two banner projects, along with the Sejong City revision. The four rivers project has become an opportunity for the opposition to unite behind a common cause. Just like the Myung-bak Fortress erected by police to protect the Blue House from protesters two years ago, the four rivers project now symbolizes an obstruction of communication in the government. An exit strategy from the four rivers project is a prerequisite for the Lee administration to recover.

The Lee Myung-bak administration is past the halfway point and is going downhill. Just as we thought that the progressives were loud but lacked substance under President Roh Moo-hyun, we once again feel that the conservatives just look good but lack competency.

People hoped that the politics of the social elites would be different from the politics of the activists, but they barely lived up to expectations on the economy and foreign policy while failing to cure the chronic illness of Korean politics, namely an excess of ideology and a lack of philosophy. Politicians and policy makers only participate in policy projects to show off their accomplishments. Moreover, the political attacks could ruin the foundation of politics, and it is likely that the administration will abandon its promise to transform itself and head toward a politics of communication and consensus.

Before the administration loses its power and retires to obscurity, it should contemplate Ko Eun’s words: “I noticed as I went downhill the flower that I missed on the way up.”

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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