Time to Drop the Grand Canal Project

      June 13, 2008 10:18

      Yim Tae-hee, the chief policymaker of the Grand National Party, said Wednesday that the cross-country canal project must become a lower priority at a time when consumer prices are rising and Korea’s international balance of payments is racking up a huge deficit. Yim said this is no time for the government to push ahead with the project. Regardless what his intentions were in making the comments, they sound as if he is saying the canal plan should be raised later while the focus now should be on ways to improve people’s living conditions.

      These people are too stubborn to listen to others. In scores of opinion polls, over 70 percent of Koreans have been found opposed to the grand canal project. And six out of 10 Koreans are against the government’s alternative proposal, of repairing Korea’s four major rivers. Sediment, heavy metals and other pollutants accrue on the bottom of the rivers, so Koreans are well aware of the fact that they need to be dredged. But the public is worried that this project is the first step to constructing the waterway.

      If you go to the candlelight vigils and ask any participant what the greatest problems for the Lee Myung-bak administration are, they will say “U.S. beef”, “the grand canal” and “cronyism in appointing government officials.” And 50 percent of Koreans who say this describe themselves as conservative in terms of their political views. These three factors have driven this administration to the edge and pulled its approval rating down below 20 percent.

      So far, whenever the grand canal was mentioned, the government’s official line was to say it will listen to public opinion first and that the project cannot be pursued unilaterally by the government. But behind the scenes it has issued comments suggesting the project had already been decided on, acting as if it was a top secret project. The government formed a planning committee to oversee the project, closed it down and recently surreptitiously revived it. It claimed it was not digging a new waterway but merely linking existing ones. While saying the project would be financed wholly by the private sector, the government spent W3 billion (US$1=W1,035) to get a state research institute to conduct a feasibility study and vowed to increase efforts to publicize the merits of the waterway.

      Just 100 days after its launch, this administration has made enemies on all sides. Yet seeing how officials are still fixated on the canal makes it seem that they are suffering from some canal disease. To safely cross a swollen river, you must know what to throw away; holding on to unnecessary things can put your life at risk. The canal project should not be postponed. The president should abandon it now and say it out loud.
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