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Evaluating the Green Growth Policy of South Korea: Focusing on the Nuclear Energy Policy and the Four Major Rivers Project

김정욱 서울대 명예교수 (대한하천학회장)
김정욱 서울대 명예교수 (대한하천학회장)


KIM Jung Uk  Professor Emeritus Seoul National University

  1. Introduction


The Lee Myung Bak Government(Feb. 2008~Feb. 2013) of South Korea launched the “Green Growth Policy” right after seizing power in February, 2008. It soon acquired international fame as a model green policy. The two main components of the green growth policy were river restoration and green energy development. But, the problem is, the real nature of the two projects were quite different from the implications of the titles. The river project titled “Four Major Rivers Restoration Project”, budgeted at 22 trillion wons(about 200 billion USD), was not actually a river restoration project: sixteen dams were constructed along the four rivers to make the rivers a series of lakes, the river beds were dredged or excavated to maintain the water depth at a minimum of 6(or 4) meters, and the riparian areas were developed for human use. After the completion of the construction works, all the pristine riverine landscapes and the habitats for aquatic and wetland flora and fauna have been helplessly altered and destroyed. Adverse impacts observed are heavy erosions, re-sedimentations, collapsed bridges and banks, flooded agricultural fields, and the enormous maintenance cost followed. The green energy development policy is centered on building 19 new nuclear power plants by 2027. There are 23 plants in operation at present and five more are under construction. The Lee Myung Bak government labeled the nuclear energy as green energy. The sustainable energy policy does not lie in expanding nuclear power, but in the energy efficiency and the renewable energy. And the only way to solve for the problems resulting from the four major rivers project is truly restore the rivers to near natural state.

  1. ‘Four Major Rivers Restoration’ Project

Originally, President Lee, Myung Bak proposed ‘Pan-Korea Grand Waterway’ when he assumed the presidency in February, 2008, building 17 inland canals in Korean Peninsula stretching over 3,100 km. More than 80% of the people opposed it. Then, the government cancelled the canal project and instead launched the ‘Four Major Rivers Refurbishment’ project in December 2008, which was later changed to “Four Major Rivers Restoration’. This is a serious case of language abuse. This is not a river restoration at all, rather totally destroys natural riverine ecosystem to build artificial water channels which exactly resemble canals, by building numerous dams, excavating river beds. They constructed so-called super banks along the rivers, removing natural vegetation in  riparian zones to build sports and cultural facilities, building car roads and bike trails along the rivers, developing industrial areas and recreation zones, and others. And the lands created outside the banks are to be developed to provide a part of budget needed for the project (see Figure 1). Since it is absolutely absurd to call this project a river restoration, I would call it rather simply ‘Four Major Rivers Project’.

The reason we take the ‘Four Major Rivers Project’ for the canal project is that the dams and water channels in this project are the same as those in the canal project. The number of dams was 16 in the ‘Pan-Korea Grand Waterway’ and 16 in the ‘Four Major Rivers Project’. The width of the water channels was over 100 m and the depth over 6 m for both projects. And the budget allocated to the construction industry is the same, 14 trillion wons: a researcher involved in the project revealed to me that the budget was the same because of the order from ‘above’. They raised the budget to 22 trillion wons, but the 8-trillion-won project was for the Korea Water Resources Corporation, a government-operated company.


Figure 1. The Concept of ‘Four Major Rivers Project’

The concept is contrary to the river restoration.

The entire reaches of the project sites had been excavated by up to 7 meters to maintain the water depth to 6(or 4) meters at minimum for navigation of ships. Huge amount of sands and gravels have been piled up to make hills and mountains along the rivers. See the photos of dredging scenes and the sand hills/mountains in Figure 2. The dredging was more like excavation. By removing these sands and gravels together with all the benthic organisms therein, fishes and other aquatic animals lost their habitats and spawning grounds. The Figure 3 shows how the beautiful rivers were devastated by this dishonest project.


As shown in Figure 4, the Nakdong River became a series of reservoirs after this project. The water flows through the operation of watergates using electricity. The water in Andong City used to reach the sea within 18 days in dry season. But after the project, it takes about half a year. There is an old Korean saying that ‘stagnant water rots’. South Korea has invested more than 30 trillion wons on cleaning up the water. It succeeded in cleaning up many rivers, but never succeeded in reservoirs. The water qualities of reservoirs have been degrading over the past four decades since the construction of large dams.

1                                 2

Kyoungcheondae, Nakdong River                      Ipo, Han River

Figure 3. The beauty of the Korea’s natural rivers devastated by the ‘Four Major          Rivers Project’


Figure 4. Nakdong River after ‘Four Major Rivers Project’

The river became a series of reservoirs which flows through

the operation of watergates using electricity.

However, the Lee government insisted that the rivers would be cleaner after the project in proportion to the water volumes increased. And in addition, they spent 4 trillion wons to reduce the BOD emission by 95% and total phosphorus by 90%. But the results turned out to the contrary: for example, the water volume of the Nakdong River had been increased 11 times, but the annual average BOD increased from 1.7 ppm in 2010 to 2.2 ppm in 2012, the chl-a from 19.3 μg/m3 to 22.4 μg/m3according to the Ministry of Environment. Heavy algal blooms and mass death of fishes have been observed since the completion of the dams. The algal bloom is so thick that it is called ‘Green Tea Latte'(see Figure 5).

They also claim that this project is to prevent flood. But, floods in Korea are usually caused by mountain avalanches, overflow of ditches and sewages, blocking water flows, mal-management of drain pumps, etc., rarely from the lack of dams. Korea has been building numerous dams, so that the density of large dams of Korea is number 1 in the world. However, the flood damage has increased 100 fold since 1970’s[1]. This project rather raises water levels of the rivers even above the lands by the rivers, mostly farmlands and rural towns, which rather will increase the risk of flooding. Raising the water levels of the four major rivers will result in raising the water levels of ground waters and tributaries. All the land uses including farms and drainage systems in Korea have been adapted to the current water levels. So, after this project, the waters should be drained to the rivers by artificial pumping. And remodeling of all the drainage systems and adapting the land uses to the new water levels will cost enormously; it may cost at least twice the current budget of this project or more. Besides, it surely will invite flooding from technical failures and human errors.


Figure 5. Algal blooms called ‘Green Tea Latte’ in the four rivers.

This project went contrary to the river restoration. Natural rivers always meander, have pools and riffles alternating, and have riparian wetlands, supporting diverse organisms. While meandering, the flood energy is dissipated and riparian wetlands store flood waters. The riparian wetland connects water ecosystem and land ecosystem. Terrestrial animals should come to the rivers through this zone and animals such as amphibians and insects should migrate from water to the land thought this zone. But, the ‘Four Major Rivers Project’ straightens up water courses neglecting meanders, removes all the riffles to make very deep ponds, removes riparian vegetation, and segregates rivers from lands by building super banks. It is not river restoration at all.

This project also brought forth enormous maintenance cost. Each summer, the floods bring enormous amount of silts to the rivers. Without dams, they are carried all the way to the sea by torrents. But with numerous dams, they will be deposited in each dam. Dredging cost will be enormous. And the maintenance costs for sports and recreation facilities, super banks, dams and watergates, bike trails, car roads, and many others. It is estimated at more than three trillion wons each year, from 25 billion wons before: more than one hundred folds from before. And besides, the cost for adjusting all the land uses and the drainage systems to the new water levels and flows, not included in the above estimate, will be enormous. Many of the farm lands and rural communities fell below the elevated water levels of the rivers. Excavating the river beds by up to 6 or 7 meters resulted in erosion of the tributaries. The erosions observed after a mild rainfall in May 2011 are shown in Figure 6.

According to the Environmental Policy Law, the Pre Environmental Impact Assessment is required for the project. The penalty for violation is imprisonment for 1 year or less. Then, the Minister of Environment may issue an order to stop the construction. The penalty for not observing this order is 5 years imprisonment or less. The National Financial Law specifies the requirement of feasibility study for the project like this. And the River law requires several pre studies such as integrated long-term water resource plan. But the government started this project ignoring all these requirement. The ESI(Environmental Impact Assessment) process took only four months, including two and a half month for writing the reports. Upon examining the ESI report, I was totally amazed at the fake works. Most of the requirements to protect the environment specified in the ESI were completely ignored in the construction sites.

암벽1    암벽2

암벽3    암벽4

Figure 6. Erosions in the Four Major Rivers after a Mild Rainfall in May 2011.

All the tributaries of the Four Major Rivers were found heavily eroded  from the mild spring rainfall.

  1. ‘Green Energy’ Project

Lee Myung Bak government enacted an energy plan in 2010, called the Fifth Basic Plan for Electricity Supply, according to which, 59 power plants were planned to be constructed by 2024: 14 nuclear, 17 coal, 26 co-generation and 2 pumped-storage hydro power plants. Among them, the nuclear was the main project and the government labelled it as ‘Green Energy’. The former president Lee addressed at the UN on September 22, thus, “The Fukushima accident should not be an excuse to abandon the nuclear power. Rather, it should be strengthened to fight against the catastrophe of climate change”[1] . Then in 2013, his government enacted the Sixth Basic Plan for Electricity Supply, and planned to build 26 more power plants by 2027, 8 more nuclear, 12 more coal, and 6 more co-generation: in total, 85 new power plants are in plan. Then the South Korea’s per-capita electricity use will exceed that of USA. There are 23 nuclear power plants operating in South Korea at present and 5 more are under construction; the density is the highest in the world. South Korea recently succeeded in contracting 4 nuclear power plants in United Arab Emirates. Mr. Lee Myung Bak was attending the ground-breaking ceremony for the nuclear power plants in UAE on the same day the Fukushima nuclear power plants exploded. South Korea has been investing much in the nuclear related R&D, taking it for an important export industry in the future.

South Korea imports 97% of energy spending 150 trillion wons a year. Korean government keeps emphasizing the importance of energy security, but the solution it proposes is just building more power plants to secure enough energy. At present, South Korea’s per-capita energy use exceeds those of Japan, Germany, Great Britain, France, Denmark, Italy and most of the European countries; especially the per-capita electricity use of South Korea is almost 1.5 times that of most of Western European countries. The energy growth and electricity growth of South Korea much exceed the economic growth. Between 1990 and 2005, the growth rate of greenhouse gas of South Korea ranked number one in the world, while the economic growth rate keeps dropping. The energy security does not lie in building more power plants which can be run only on imported fuels, but lie in energy efficiency and renewable energy which can be obtained just with technology and spirit.

Recently, there have been violent conflicts surrounding the construction of power transmission system all over the country, resulting from this aggressive energy policy. The power plants are built in remote countries to supply the electricity mostly to the capital area. The government is sacrificing the poor country people to supply cheap electricity to urban and industrial area. Recently, a senior farmer in Milyang burnt himself to death to protest against the power transmission tower erected on his farm without his consent and without enough compensation. Similar struggles are wherever the transmission lines pass along. Questions are raised, why all the people should pay the same price for the electricity regardless of the transport distance, and why do we need more electricity at all.

Germany decided to phase out all the nuclear power plants by 2022 and reduce the energy use by an half by 2050 after the Fukushima tragedy. The German government organized the Ethics Commission on Nuclear Safety consisted of 17 eminent members. They had hearings both from pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear experts. After discussions between members, they reached the conclusion that the nuclear energy is not safe and Germany can secure enough energy from energy savings and other energy sources like renewable energy without damaging to the economy. The decision was confirmed by the Federal Cabinet and by the Federal Congress. The scenario is, Germany will shut down all of the 17 nuclear power plants by 2021 (or 2022 if there are problems with developing replacements and maintaining stability). Of these 17, the 7 oldest were shut off right after Fukushima. There are to remain off line for ever. A plant that was already off line, is to remain off line. Of the remaining 9, 6 must be shut down by 2021, and the last three no later than 2022. They believed that the new energy policy will be a good momentum for the new future economy. Many other countries in the world are following the similar steps. They do not consider the nuclear energy as a green one.

  1. Closing

The UNEP introduced South Korea’s Green Growth Policy, the main theme of it is the Four Rivers Project and nuclear power policy, as a model case of ‘Green New Deal’, which revitalize the economy and create jobs as well as the environment, especially fighting against the climate change. The IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change), soon after, acknowledged it as a good case of climate change policy, and the Convention on Biodiversity awarded the CBD Award to Mr. Lee Myung Bak recognizing the policy as a model case of biodiversity preservation in 2010. Mr. Angel Gurria, the secretary general of OECD, praised Lee Myung Bak as ‘the Father of Green Growth’. He also was awarded the Zayed International Prize for the Environment from UAE and the Honorary Doctor degree in the Environment from the Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, all owing to his Green Growth Policy. Encouraged by these responses, Mr. Lee Myung Bak tried to export the technology to developing countries and succeeded in Thailand. The international bodies have been deceived by inclining to acknowledge the government’s official documents and neglecting the petitions from NGOs.

The nuclear energy is not the solution for energy security. It is not safe and the resource is limited. The energy security lies in energy savings and renewable energy which require only spirit and technology.

‘Four Major Rivers Project’ can never be successfully completed. Now we are observing the sorrowful aftermath: collapsed banks, flooded farmlands, polluted waters, dead fishes, deserted riverside facilities, enormous maintenance cost and others. If we do not restore the rivers, the rivers themselves will find their own ways: the excavated riverbeds eventually will be filled up someday; the so-called superbanks will be torn open; and the dams will collapse. Then, it will bring tragedy to the country. The only way to avoid the disasters and the enormous maintenance cost is to truly restore the rivers to the former states.



Peace on Asia, Seoul : WTI 2013