Lee insists Grand Canal project has been abandoned

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Lee insists Grand Canal project has been abandoned

President Lee Myung-bak said yesterday that he will not push forward the construction of a cross-country grand canal during his term of office, in an attempt to end the controversy and focus the administration’s energy on other programs.

The public had not shown much support for the idea, which was one of Lee’s key election pledges in 2007.

In his radio address to the nation, aired yesterday morning, Lee said he had envisioned the construction of the 540-kilometer (335.5-mile) canal connecting Seoul and Busan when he was a businessman, long before his political career began.

“As a matter of fact, in 1996 when I served as a lawmaker in the 15th National Assembly, I proposed to the government that the grand waterway be constructed at all costs. Thus, the project became the centerpiece of my presidential campaign pledges,” Lee said.

“Despite all this, I made myself clear that I would not pursue the Grand Waterway Project unless it was backed by a public consensus. That is because I knew there would be a risk of it emerging as a politically contentious issue causing a split in public opinion.”

Lee said his administration currently has no plan to connect the Han and Nakdong rivers, the core of the Grand Canal project.

“The project will not be initiated during my term of office,” he said.

However, Lee said his administration will push ahead with another contentious plan, known as the Four Rivers Restoration Project.

“We cannot afford to leave our rivers, one of the most important resources in the 21st century, as they now are,” he said.

Lee admitted that many people have cast doubt about the four-rivers program, calling it the Grand Canal project in disguise.

The president said many people have also taken issue with the four-rivers project, believing that the 20 trillion won ($15.5 billion) budget will only benefit construction companies.

Revealing his frustration with the public’s mistrust of his administration, Lee insisted the four-rivers program will significantly benefit the nation.

To promote the message, the administration has been showing a 90-second advertisement at the country’s 52 major theaters since June 25.

Lawmakers were split over Lee’s decision to shelve the canal project during his term.

“The president has put a full stop on the contentious election pledge because he wanted to unite the nation instead of continuing wasteful debates,” said Grand National Party spokesman Yoon Sang-hyun.

Democratic Party spokesman Noh Young-min said the party welcomes Lee’s decision, but urged Lee to give up the four-rivers project as well.

DP Chairman Chung Sye-kyun said the four-rivers programs should only cost around 1 trillion won a year, but he believes 30 trillion won is nearer the mark, which would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Environmentalists and liberal activists also urged Lee to scrap the four-rivers program as well.

Lee gave up connecting rivers with a canal, while some conservative groups opposed Lee’s decision to abandon a key election pledge.

“Lee’s decision sounds like he will not link the Han and Nakdong rivers, but he will continue other construction works at all rivers,” said Lee Cheol-jae, an official of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement. “That’s no different to the canal program and it will eventually kill all rivers.”

The activist urged the president to thoroughly study the economic and environmental impact of the four-rivers program and discuss the plan with the public before pushing forward construction.

Conservatives disagreed with the decision to drop the canal plan.

“[Lee] should know better than anyone about the economic benefits that the canal project will bring about,” said Jo Seong-jin, head of the Korea Grand Canal Forum.

“We have supported the project not because we supported President Lee, but because the plan was great.”

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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