Reflections on 40 Years of the Seoul-Busan Expressway

      July 07, 2010 13:21

      The Seoul-Busan Expressway was completed exactly 40 years ago on Wednesday, on July 7, 1970. Commemorating the completion, President Park Chung-hee delivered a speech at a stadium in Daegu saying it was "a symbol of the modernization of our country and a direct link to Korean reunification." Park even described the freeway as a "masterpiece." The reason he used such lofty language to describe a road is because the construction project was an audacious undertaking for the struggling country at the time.

      The expressway took 9 million workers and two years and five months to complete. A quarter of Korea's annual budget was spent to build the 428 km freeway, mobilizing domestic builders and military engineers. The project was not only the largest in Korea's history but also opened a new era in the country's development. Korea's transportation network and related industries, which were heavily dependent on railways and roads built during the Japanese occupation, grew exponentially as a result. An industrial belt formed along the expressway that linked factories in Suwon, Daegu, Gumi, Ulsan, Pohang and Masan. Korea's annual per-capita income, which stood at a mere US$225, and its $8.1 billion GDP more than quadrupled seven years after the road was built. Kim Jung-ryum, who was chief presidential secretary at the time, recalled later, "The rapid economic growth we saw during the 1970s and 80s would not have been possible without the expressway."

      The project also instilled a "can-do" spirit among Koreans. Before the expressway was built, a sense of skepticism pervaded about the country's abilities after the experiences of Japanese colonial occupation, the Korean War, the corrupt government of Syngman Rhee and the military coup. At the planning stage, the Seoul-Busan Expressway faced stiff opposition, with critics calling it a "sightseeing road for the rich," while opposition lawmakers demanded a highway linking Seoul and the eastern port city of Gangneung first. But the massive project was completed with no help from other countries and provided a much-needed morale boost for Koreans, while serving as a springboard for rapid economic development.

      Four decades on, Koreans must ask themselves whether they still have the spirit that enabled them to build the expressway. All that the country can boast of in terms of major construction projects now is Incheon International Airport, while others including the Sejong City plan, the Grand Canal project, the four-rivers project and the construction of business towns have been shot down by opponents or sputtered due to a lack of public support. But perhaps the age of major infrastructure projects is coming to an end, and the time has now come to shift the focus of major projects to those that improve quality of life by promoting public health, education, welfare and leisure activities.

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