[KS] "Ecological doubletalk" in Korea
Afostercarter at aol.com
Afostercarter at aol.com
Fri Jan 8 05:20:54 EST 2010
Dear friends and colleagues,
Michael Rank's commendably succinct message
draws attention to a major current concern in Korea.
In November in Seoul, at The Economist Conferences
Business Roundtable with the South Korean government,
President Lee Myung-bak and his full team of economic
ministers and other top officials all harped a good deal on
green themes. I append the relevant section of the summary
that I wrote for participants. You'll note a degree of scepticism.
Songdo, the subject of the article that Michael links to, is
probably a lost cause by now for the poor spoonbills.
(For a broader and more positive view of this project overall,
from a source which one might have expected to be critical,
Then there is Saemangeum: mother of all white elephants,
and politically the purest pork. They built the world's longest
sea-wall, at vast expense and here again destroying wetland
bird habitats. Yet after almost 20 years, nothing has been done
with it because no one can agree what the ruddy thing is for!
(Birdskorea.org is excellent on environmental issues generally)
(A casino now, forsooth!)
Now we have the Four Rivers Restoration Project (4RRP),
which is ploughing ahead despite many serious concerns.
These are summarized in an article I wrote last May; also
appended here, if I may, since it is not in the public domain.
An excellent piece on the 4RRP is this by James Card:
His opening paragraph reads as follows:
The Korean peninsula was once called geum-su-gang-san, “a land of
embroidered rivers and mountains.” Before South Korea industrialized in the postwar
years, the rivers were wild-running freestone streams barreling down the
mountains and turning into sandy shallow rivers edged by wetlands as they
reached the sea. In her 1898 book Korea and Her Neighbors, 19th-century
travel writer Isabella Bird described the upper Namhan River as “where pure
emerald water laps gently upon crags festooned with roses and honeysuckle, or
in fairy bays on pebbly beaches and white sand.”
That world is long gone now...
Finally, ecological doubletalk is only one instance
of how ideology befuddles the brain and skews policy.
There is also egalitarian doubletalk, whose progeny
is Sejong City: like Saemangeum an ill-considered
pork-barrel scheme on whose purpose no one agrees,
and a political hot potato which will waste time and
money for years to come, belying its website name:
_http://www.happycity.go.kr/_ (http://www.happycity.go.kr/) . Here are two
Happy New Year to one and all,
Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds
Flat 1, 40 Magdalen Road, Exeter, Devon, EX2 4TE, England, UK
T: (+44, no 0) 07970 741307 (mobile); 01392 257753 Skype:
E: _afostercarter at aol.com_ (mailto:afostercarter at aol.com) ,
_afostercarter at yahoo.com_ (mailto:afostercarter at yahoo.com) W:
Here's hoping (malgré tout) for a peaceful, healthy and prosperous New
A major theme was what President Lee called the “new national vision” of
low carbon green growth. (So new, indeed, that it hardly figured in his
campaign for office in 2007.) Strategy and finance minister Yoon Jeung-hyun
outlined the “Green Growth Five-Year Plan”, dating only from July, whereby
Korea “will invest two percent of the GDP as public spending on green growth
between 2009 and 2013.” Similarly, according to the only recently appointed
knowledge economy minister Choi Kyunghwan, five ‘green tech industries’
are among 17 ‘new growth engines’ announced in January; the other 12 being
in ‘high-tech convergence industries’ and ‘value-added service industries.’
(More on services in the following section.)
Minister Choi, who is also a member of the national assembly, admitted
that he had recently expressed the fear that South Korea plans to go green too
fast. In his view public consensus is missing. Moreover his brief includes
being in charge of industry, so he fights their corner. (MKE is the new
name for what used to be the ministry of commerce, industry and energy or
MOCIE: arguably a more accurate moniker than the trendy new one, with its aura
of IT.) Kim Hyung-Kook, who chairs the presidential committee on green
growth, conceded that for a country whose emissions had more than doubled since
1990, going green would be hard. He saw his committee as open to
foreigners, and a ginger group to the rest of government.
The US$18bn Four Rivers Restoration Project (4RRP) was little mentioned,
despite its being the most tangible project in this field as well as a major
focus of public debate. Many view it as a covert rebranding of President Lee
’s former ‘grand canal’ scheme, which he had pitched more for logistical
than green reasons (though few were convinced) and reluctantly dropped. In
sum, despite right-on rhetoric and good intentions, doubts remain about
both the depth of this new conversion to eco-friendliness, and just how green
some aspects of it really are.
As participants left, they may have noticed posters and preparations in
the Hyatt for an event next day: the 2009 International Forum for Green Growth
and Saemangeum Project. This is about the world’s longest sea-wall (33km)
and largest polder on Korea’s southwest coast, not yet complete after
nearly 20 years and some US$7.5bn. No one agrees what to do with the site; plans
have altered several times, while critics claim it is bad for the
An editorial on October 21st in the JoongAng Ilbo, Seoul’s leading daily,
linked this to other currently planned large-scale projects under the
headline: “Prudent Policy, Please.” Besides the Four Rivers project, this also
alludes to the main hot potato of current political debate: a US$18bn plan
to move half the government to a new administrative city 160km south of
Seoul. (Interestingly this went unmentioned in the Roundtable.) Even if
modified as seems likely into a scientific or educational complex instead, this
will still be an costly distraction.
Brief for Oxford Analytica. Edited version published 22 May 2009.
Some slight updating.
Rivers restoration project rekindles canal controversy
SUBJECT: The Lee Myung-bak administration’s environmental infrastructure
SIGNIFICANCE: Critics claim the government’s ideas are environmentally
unsound, and a ploy to resurrect the president’s dream of a nationwide canal
network via the back door.
ANALYSIS: On April 27 President Lee Myung-bak presided at the launch of an
interim plan to upgrade South Korea’s four major rivers: the Han, Nakdong,
Geum and Yeongsan. This is to be finalized by end-May, with work starting
in September after the rainy season.
The four river restoration project (4RRP) is a core part of a 50 trillion
won (37 billion dollar) ‘Green New Deal’ announced earlier this year.
Costing 14 trillion won, the 4RRP aims to:
* Provide more and better water. Two new dams and 13 reservoirs are to
store an extra 1.25 billion cubic metres of fresh water by 2012.
* This, and dredging the river beds, are also meant to improve control of
seasonal flooding. The latter has worsened since the 1970s, possibly
because of the effects of industrialisation.
* Amenites will include 1,411 kilometres of new cycling paths, sprucing up
cultural relics near the river banks, and general riparian beautification
for leisure and tourism purposes.
* It is hoped thereby to create some 190,000 jobs directly and more
indirectly, boosting local economies along the rivers and contributing to more
balanced regional development.
* New photovoltaic and small hydropower plants on or near the four rivers,
as well as larger green spaces, are supposed to reduce carbon emissions by
100,000 tons annually.
Canal redux? On February 26 prime minister Han Seung-soo said “there
should be no more controversy over this project,” calling it “the backbone of
our Green New Deal plan.”
However, this has not silenced claims that the 4RRP is essentially a
covert bid to revive Lee Myung-bak’s pet project for a ‘Grand Korean Waterway’
(GKW): a 540 kilometre cross-country canal linking Seoul to the port of
Busan in the southeast, costing 16 trillion won.
Mountainous and densely populated, South Korea has high logistics costs.
But few experts supported the GKW, fearing rather a white elephant and
ecological harm. Yet Lee persisted, until forced to drop the idea last June
amidst a deepening political crisis caused by protests against US beef imports
and complaints that he was riding roughshod over public opinion.
Water shortage. Among the varied aims of the 4RRP, water shortage is a
growing problem. Though South Korea’s yearly rainfall of 1,274 millimetres is
30% above the global average, its dense population means per capita water
supply will fall to 1,199 cubic metres by 2025; the UN regards 2,000 as the
safe minimum. Yet daily consumption per head at 397 litres is the highest
in OECD, suggesting a need for action at the demand as well as the supply
Protest. Environmental NGOs are influential in South Korea. Their record
* Holding up for several years construction of the world’s longest seawall
* Delaying the last section of the KTX high speed rail link from Seoul to
Busan, now set to open finally in 2010. On April 23 the Supreme Court
convicted Venerable Jiyu, a Buddhist nun, for obstructing this; most famously in
a 120-day hunger strike in 2005 against a planned 13 kilometre tunnel near
her monastery, said to threaten the habitat of a rare salamander.
Green? Ecological NGOs are predictably sceptical of the 4RRP and its green
* Birds Korea (BK) claims that the plans to dredge rivers and build dams,
weirs and bicycle paths will breach obligations under the Convention on
Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, to both of which
South Korea is a signatory.
* BK also argues that vegetated riverbanks, appropriately supported, would
be stronger and cheaper to maintain than concrete, as well as more
attractive for biodiversity and recreation.
* Or again, silting and stagnation from dams will harm rather than help
water quality. Tap water potability has become a public concern in recent
years; bottled water sales have soared despite official insistence that mains
water is safe to drink. Water quality and quantity and flood control alike
would be better guaranteed by restoring natural flood-plain wetlands.
* Conversely, a construction-focused approach will disturb and restrict
water flows, destroy natural river beds and edges, reduce biodiversity and
risk long-term ecological damage.
Bulldozer. Relatedly, critics query the underlying perspective and
priorities of this project:
* President Lee is a former CEO of Hyundai’s construction arm. Nicknamed ‘
bulldozer’, he is viewed as espousing an old-school view of development as
covering nature with concrete.
* The construction sector, accounting for nearly 20% of GDP, is suffering
in the downturn. This affords an excuse for public works projects as
Keynesian stimulus, and for job creation. On this basis the 4RRP, like the GKW
before it, is popular in most of the localities affected, with hopes of
regeneration and new employment outweighing environmental concerns.
* In Lee’s favour, his controversial removal of a raised motorway to
restore a long-hidden stream while mayor of Seoul is now applauded as much
improving the capital’s amenities.
Exempt? There is disquiet that no full feasibility studies have been done.
Indeed, a 1999 law mandating such a survey for all projects costing over
50 billion won was recently amended to exempt works for “natural disaster
prevention” – as the 4RRP is classified – from this.
Canal reduced. Similar unease affects another canal project, predating the
GKW and still going ahead. On May 6 President Lee visited the site of the
18 kilometre Gyeongin canal. By 2011 this will connect the Han river in
Seoul with the port of Incheon on the Yellow (West) Sea for cargo ships of up
to 4,000 tons.
Conceived in the 1990s, this idea was abandoned five years ago amid doubts
that it could be economic. In 2003 the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI)
criticised officials for fudging a cost-benefit analyis by the Korea
Development Institute (KDI) to make it look viable. Lee revived the 2 billion
dollar project, but doubts persist and KDI’s study remains unpublished.
Green growth. More broadly, on May 12 the Presidential Committee on Green
Growth said 12.6 trillion won will be invested by 2013 in green
technologies, to create half a million jobs. 4.2 trillion won will be spent on
Internet infrastructure, green IT products, and low-carbon transit systems, while
R&D into other various green technologies, such as high-efficiency solar
batteries and hybrid vehicles, will receive 8.4 trillion won.
Seawall saga. If precedent is any guide, two relevant cases point in
* Confounding early scepticism, upgrading of the Han river in Seoul –
initally for the 1988 Olympics – has been a success. The river now is far
cleaner and more attractive than before.
* However, the main recent precedent for large-scale nature-remaking is
discouraging. At 33 kilometres, Saemangeum on the southwest coast is the world
’s longest seawall, infilling an estuary and adding 400 square kilometres
of reclaimed land. This remains controversial:
* Begun in 1991, the wall was not finished till 2006. Environmentalists
opposed it, saying it would destroy some of East Asia’s most important
wetlands, crucial for migratory birds. In 2007 the RSPB, a British bird
protection body, reported that seabirds were starving there.
* Conceived mainly to boost and placate the neglected Jeolla region, which
complained at missing out on major development projects, Saemangeum’s
precise purpose has never been agreed or clarified. Talk variously of industrial
or agricultural uses has come to little so far.
* Last year the area was designated a free economic zone (FEZ), again to
no visible effect.
* In March the central and provincial governments agreed to make Saemangeum
a “model green vacation spot”, international tourist resort, or even “a
Korean Dubai”. This latest twist appears no better thought out, nor more
likely to succeed, than its many predecessors.
* - as witness that by October the state-run Korea Rural Community Corp.
(KRC) was touting the wholly different concept of an “eco-friendly
CONCLUSION: Lee’s river restoration plan is ambitious and far-reaching.
Confidence that it will actually achieve its diverse goals would be higher if
feasibility studies had preceded it. If this goes ahead but proves to have
little or negative impact, especially on the environment, this will only
cement the president’s reputation for bulldozing projects without
consultation, and could work against the ruling party in 2012’s presidential and
In a message dated 1/7/2010 18:42:09 GMT Standard Time, rank at mailbox.co.uk
If you're interested in development vs conservation, "cities of the
future" and "ecological doubletalk" in Korea you may be interested in
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the Koreanstudies