August 29, 2008 11:23
Park Chung-hee was the virtual foreman when the Gyeongbu highway was built, a product of a sheer "just do it" spirit at a time when the country had no capital, technology and know-how to build a highway.
Park was very impressed with the Autobahn during his visit to West Germany in 1964. When he came back to Korea, he would often make sketches of road networks on a piece of paper whenever he had free time. In 1967, for his presidential election campaign, he pledged to build a highway connecting Seoul and Busan.
A highway? The term sounded unfamiliar enough to raise the eyebrows of many. The opposition party, spearheading the resistance, dismissed it as a plan to build a road for the excursions of the rich. "Why would a country with a per capita GNP of US$142 need a highway?" it protested. But Park did not give in. Without a penny in the budget, he mobilized military engineering squads and started building the highway between Seoul and Osan three months prior to the ground-breaking ceremony.
Park made the decisions at every step of construction, from where to build it to how. Then minister of commerce and industry Kim Chung-yum later recalled, "The president led the soldiers as if he was on a battlefield." Whenever he had time off, he drove his Kaiser jeep to the construction sites.
The project exacted a lot of sacrifices, especially in difficult terrain. The road between Daejeon and Daegu was the most difficult, particularly near the Dangjae Tunnel, now the Okcheon Tunnel. During the two-and-a-half years of construction, 77 people died.
On July 7, 1970, one year earlier than originally planned, all parts of the 428 km Gyeongbu Highway, including 305 bridges and 12 tunnels, were open. The highway today runs 416 kilometers as some parts were straightened out, and it has 353 bridges. It had been the largest public work project since Korea's founding father Dangun created the country 5,000 years ago. An emotional Park praised the work as "a great piece of art produced in the shortest period of time with the least amount of money" -- W100 million (US$1=W1,008) per kilometer -- and poured a bottle of champagne on the road.
Completion of the highway made it possible to travel from one end of the country to the other in a day, and opened the era of the personal car in Korea. The Korea Expressway Corporation estimates that the Gyeongbu highway generates W13.55 trillion of economic benefits annually.
Of course, there are downsides. The obsession with highways led to neglect of plans to expand railways and existing roads, but the achievement stands.
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