Hungry for success

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 February, 2005, 12:00am

In the past, South Korea's authoritarian governments literally bulldozed huge construction projects like the Seoul-Pusan highway through people's homes and natural barriers like mountains in the name of national economic interest.

The tactic worked: the country made the leap from developing to developed world in a single generation.

But with democratic progress during the past two decades, this unilateral pursuit is no longer possible. Citizens have become much more sophisticated and mature.

In recent years, major displays of public opposition have caused the government to delay several high-profile projects.

In 2003, a plan to build a nuclear waste storage plant was shelved for 20 years because of objections from environmentalists and residents. Two islands off the west coast were selected as a potential site, but residents, backed by environmental groups, came close to rioting, forcing the government to scrap the plan at a huge cost.

The latest mega-project to fall victim to people power is the Seoul-Pusan high-speed railway. A female Buddhist monk called Jiyul staged a hunger strike in order to get Seoul to carry out an environmental assessment of a plan to build a tunnel through a picturesque mountain. The work is the final stage of the country's first bullet train project. After 100 days of fasting, the frail monk got her wish.

Alas, the victory leaves the government facing a huge bill and yet more delays to the project, which has already been postponed for more than a year because of environmental concerns. Indeed, there are bigger costs to such civic activism. South Korea's economic efficiency is suffering. Some of these national projects are urgently needed. Without prompt implementation, they may not serve their original purpose.

The nuclear waste storage plant, for example, is a high priority as the country's nuclear power plants are having to rely on temporary storage facilities.

Analysts say that the environmental movement has cost the country several billion US dollars in total. In fact, some South Koreans miss the old days when a single order from the presidential office was enough to ensure that projects went ahead. Industrial facilities were built with hardly any thought for the environment, on the president's whim, but many did contribute to the creation of world-beating companies.

The monk's hunger strike was, of course, in a good cause. But national prosperity and safety are also causes worth defending.