It’s all about politics
I first heard about Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat and home to lithium riches, in the mid-2000s. At the time, an official of Korea Resources Corp. was excitedly explaining that Korea could get its hands on a much-needed resource essential for the production of lithium ion batteries if it could be part of the salt lake development. He ran around with various plans to get in on the lithium mining project led by the Bolivian government as a foreign partner. I sat on the article as the resource development project was a sensitive matter. Then suddenly there were reports on the world’s largest lithium reserve, and they had come from the political corner. The project was touted as a feat of resource diplomacy by Lee Sang-deuk, former five-term lawmaker and brother of then-President Lee Myung-bak. The story does not have a happy ending.
Resource exploitations have often been boasted about by politicians and bureaucrats who cite them as achievements. The Bolivian project was pursued through the determined efforts of mining officials. The mining industry is dominated by multinational names like Vale and BHP Biliton. But they can’t easily approach Bolivia because the country is staunchly protective of its resources and does not trust foreigners to drill on its soil. South Korea was among first to get access through a joint copper mining development with Bolivian state mining company Comibol. It took a year to sign the contract. But the credit went to the government when it announced that a senior official joined the signing ceremony.
A silent global war over resources panned out throughout the 2000s. Korea’s overseas resource development dates to the1970s, but the government-led initiative took place under President Roh Moo-hyun. Lee, his successor, made it a priority of his administration. Resource development is highly secretive, long term and costly. But Koreans were boisterous and impatient. They promoted resource politics, and politicians and bureaucrats talked about it proudly, as if they were recounting old war stories.
The code of confidentiality and discretion was ignored. Even at the early stage of discussions, progress was announced as if it was a done deal. It was not just people high in the Blue House, but also lawmakers. They nagged working-level officials to report on developments. Although they were asked to swear secrecy and told that negotiations were still underway, they blabbered about them anyway.
But everyone has suddenly gone quiet now that past politics and diplomacy involving overseas resource projects are the subject of a special parliamentary probe. It would be a good chance to eliminate the political ingredients and greed and finally clean up the sector so the serious business of exploring resources for the country can continue.
But working-level officials are not happy about the way the probe is heading. Politicians talk about tax waste and squandering national wealth, pointing to the low yield from a project that cost 40 trillion won ($36.9 billion) even after the business took off a few years ago. Some do not seem to know the basics of resource development. Securing and developing resources from overseas requires money, patience and boldness.
The 40 trillion won could have been spent elsewhere - such as child care subsidies. But the money spent is money gone. Some must be invested in the future. The probe won’t help anyone if it only aims to find dirt. Since the probe, all the will and endeavors to explore new resource ventures have been killed. Politicians ruined many of the past ventures for their own ambitions and needs. They are tainting the business again with skepticism. They must try to discern and separate work from irregularities. They must not discourage and jeopardize the country’s future resources through their ignorant cynicism.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 21, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Sunny Yang