Herald Tribune, 16 July 2003
Judge calls temporary halt to tidal reclamation project

The Saemangeum tidelands reclamation project, criticized for its potential for environmental damage, has been ordered suspended by a court here.

The Seoul Public Administration Court yesterday ordered the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to halt work on the project until the court rules on whether work can continue. Environmentalists and some residents of North Jeolla province, where Saemangeum is located, filed suit against the ministry last month asking for the suspension. A final decision is expected in three months, but the court ordered the halt, it said, to prevent environmental damage from occurring in the interim if the court judges the project unsound.

In Korea, such rulings generally are made when plaintiffs have presented a case a court finds compelling but not yet worthy of a final decision. That seemed clear when the court said yesterday, "If the construction of the sea dike is completed, which will happen soon, the reservoir that will be made by the construction will likely become a reservoir of death. Environmental damage caused by the project will require a tremendous amount of money and time to correct."

The Saemangeum tideland reclamation project is said to be the biggest land expansion project in Korean history. The area is a 40,000-hectare (98,800-acre) tideland located in Gimje, Buan, and Gunsan in North Jeolla province. The agricultural ministry initiated the project in 1991, saying that they would make the tideland into farmland and build a reservoir and a 33-kilometer sea dike to increase crop production and to supply agricultural and industrial water for the area. But environmental advocates and many academics say the project will be an environmental disaster, destroying a diverse ecological system and the ability of the marshes to purify sea water. They also worry about the quality of the water that would be trapped in the reservoir and fed by streams with agricultural and industrial pollutants.

Kang Young-ho, the presiding judge, said his decision was made after extensive consultations with experts and an examination of similar cases in the past. Environmentalists were happy with yesterday's decision.

"We praise the court's decision, which understood the importance of the environment," one official at an environmental protection group said. But the ministry and many advocates of economic growth in North Jeolla province, which had been left behind in Korea's first rush to industrialization beginning in the 1960s, were visibly upset with the decision.

About 1.5 trillion won ($1.2 billion) has been spent on the project so far. If the court issues a final ruling that halts the project, that money would be lost as well as another 300 billion won in losses from such things as the rental cost of construction equipment that will be idled while construction is stayed. If the court orders the dike to be dismantled, the ministry said, the cost could rise by another 1.5 trillion won. The ruling Millennium Democratic Party this month established a commission to discuss problems surrounding the controversial project. Commission members will visit the Saemangeum site next week.