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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 January 2008, 14:57 GMT
Canal plan divides Korea
By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

South Korea's incoming President Lee Myung-bak intends to build a canal stretching the length of the country - he believes it will be an engineering marvel, others say it is lunacy.


Kim Kyung-pyo is pretty much the only sign of life on this stretch of the icy Nakdong river.

Mr Kim owns a fish soup restaurant in the town of Mungyeong.

Many a catfish from these waters has ended up on his customers' plates.

He admits to being a little troubled about a plan that will transform this sleepy backwater beyond all recognition.

"If the canal affects my livelihood, then there's a problem," Mr Kim said.

"We catch fish, we make soup, and we need to eat."

Grand design

The plan to build the Grand Korean Waterway is remarkable in scale and scope.

To create the canal, major rivers including the Nakdong will need to be widened and deepened, altering their course and flow.

The Cheonggyecheon stream in central Seoul
Mr Lee has already made a feature of one Seoul waterway

It is the brainchild of South Korea's newly-elected president, Lee Myung-bak, a man known as "the bulldozer" from his time as a construction industry executive.

The 500km-long waterway, linking the port city of Busan in the south with the capital, Seoul, will need an extensive system of locks, docks and wharfs.

A 20km-long tunnel blasted through one of South Korea's central mountain ranges will help to make it one of the most expensive construction projects in the country's history.

Mr Lee does not take office until late February, but his canal scheme, a key pledge during his election campaign, is causing intense debate.

The president-elect says no public money will be needed.

A large proportion of the estimated $16bn (8.2bn) cost will be recovered in the form of rock, sand and gravel - material scraped and blasted from the river beds.

His vision is to create an engineering marvel and an international tourist attraction that will revitalise inland economies, slash transport costs and improve the environment by taking heavy goods off the roads.

Environment fears

But critics say it is economic lunacy.

They question why a country surrounded by water needs a canal in the first place.

"The plan will have far-reaching effects on our river eco-systems," says Kim Sang-whoa, president of the so-called Anti-Canal Movement.

South Korea's President-elect Lee Myung-bak (file image)
Mr Lee says the canal will attract tourists and slash transport costs

"Once built it will attract further development. It will mean short-term profits for the constructors, but the long-term damage will be visited on the Korean people."

The campaigners argue that while canals might prove to be sustainable transport solutions elsewhere in the world, they are unsuitable for South Korea's geography.

Shaken by the criticism, South Korea's soon-to-be president has promised widespread consultation before pushing the plan through.

At a recent press conference I asked him whether he still believed it was a good idea.

"Lots of people are worrying about environmental problems," he said.

"I intend to have discussions with specialists and take steps to put the Korean people's minds at ease."

As mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak achieved success with another, initially unpopular, watery project.

In the face of major opposition he pushed through a scheme to tear down a busy fly-over, uncovering and beautifying the Cheonggyecheon stream buried below.

The area is now a hugely popular public space, a rare oasis in a traffic-clogged city.

But transforming South Korea's rivers into a giant canal system is a much bigger project.

Casting his net from his tiny boat in the middle of the Nakdong, Kim Kyung-pyo wonders about the huge changes that could be coming to his tranquil stretch of river.

He says if the scheme brings more customers to his restaurant he will be happy.

As long as he can still catch the fish to make the soup.

Lee wins South Korea's election
19 Dec 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Lee Myung-bak
19 Dec 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: South Korea
10 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: South Korea
17 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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