South Korea's Ex-President Accused of Lying Over Four Major Rivers Project

A highly controversial big-budget rivers project in South Korea has again enraged the Korean public with the release of an audit report revealing that the country's ex-president and the ruling party allegedly went back on their word about dropping additional canal construction.

The government claims that the main purpose of the ‘Four Major Rivers Project’ is to prevent floods and create new jobs, but civic and environmental groups have strongly protested against the project since its very early stage, stressing that it will cause irreversible harm to the environment by blocking water flow and meddling with the ecosystem. A previous audit report released in January 2013 revealed that construction was a poorly done train-wreck.

One of the most contested parts in the project was for canal construction, a costly plan which was considered not only unnecessary, but seriously detrimental to the environment. As public opposition grew stronger back in 2010, then-president Lee Myung-bak and the ruling Saenuri party backed off from their initial plan and vowed repeatedly that [ko] they will, at least, drop the canal plan. However, the latest report by the Board of Audit and Inspection exposed that the Four Major Rivers project laid physical groundwork for canal construction.

Image of ... by Flickr User Wetlands and Birds Korea (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Image of Four Major Rivers Construction Site, South Korea. Image by Flickr user @Wetlands and Birds Korea (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On July 15, 2013, the United Progressive party filed a lawsuit [ko] against Lee Myung-bak and his close inner circle members under the charge of negligence of duty, dereliction of duty and abuse of authority, condemning them for having ‘deceived Korean people, wasted the 22 trillion Korean won (about 20 billion US dollars) of taxpayers’ money, and abused government power for personal gain’.

Prominent citizen journalist Media Mongu (@mediamongutweeted [ko] a photo of protesters in front of Lee Myung-bak’s house. It has been retweeted more than 180 times.

@mediamongu: 4대강 사업은 변종 대운하였으며, 국민을 상대로 한 22조원 짜리 거대 사기극이었음이 만천하에 드러났습니다. MB 자택 앞에서 철저한 수사와 처벌을 요구하고 있습니다

@mediamongu: The Four Major Rivers Project turns out to be a mutant for the canal [project] and 22 trillion Korean won (about 20 billion US dollars) of colossal fraud committed against Korean public. People demand a thorough investigation and punishment of [those involved, by protesting] in front of Lee Myung-bak’s house.

Net user ID Nabio on the Daum Agora site listed numerous problems [ko] of this river project, let alone the already done construction works to build canals:

Image of River in Daegu, South Korea

Image of Upstream River in Daegu city, South Korea, taken on August 10, 2012 by Flickr User @Friends of Wetlands and Birds Korea (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

결국 MB가 떠난 후에도 4대강은 골치덩어리 입니다. 심각한 예산 낭비는 말할 것도 없고 수질은 개악이 되어 심각한 녹조에 의한 녹차라떼를 퍼 먹을 수 있게 되었습니다. 또한 […] 소중한 문화재로서 가치가 있을 법한 것들도 충분한 제고 없이 4대강 공사에 파묻혀 버렸다는 것입니다.  […] 4대강 사업은 처음부터 많은 문제점을 가지고 있었습니다. 물을 관리한다는 것은 좋은 것입니다. 하지만 3면이 바다인 나라에서 내륙에 운하를 만들고 배를 띄운다는 것은 쉽게 이해할 수 없는 일이었습니다. 그리고 잘 흐르는 강을 인위적으로 막아 ‘호수'를 만드는 것 또한 물을 다스리는 것이 아니라 자연의 법칙을 거스르는 짓이었습니다.

Even after MB [ex-President’s initial] had gone, the Four Major Rivers Project still remains as a pain in the neck. Not only has it hemorrhaged the national budget, but it has deteriorated the water quality that now we are able to drink the algae green tea latte straight from the river. [note: green tea latte is a sarcastic nickname people call river water turned green due to mass algae outbreaks]. Also cultural artifacts [unearthed in the construction sites] have been tossed back [so not to hinder/delay] the project.[…] The Four Major Project Project is inherently problematic. Although there is nothing wrong with controlling the water, the idea of building canals to promote water transportation in a country (peninsula) whose three sides are all surrounded by water is hard to buy. Building lakes artificially by blocking the water flow is not the way of controlling water [as they've told public], but is an action taken against the laws of nature.

Prominent political blogger Impeter, who has been closely following the story for years, wrote another explainer [ko] summarizing the audit and inspection report and reminding people of media censorship that blocked an investigative report from airing. The blogger, later in the post, voiced worries that this issue can be used to divert the public's attention from the recent spy agency scandal:

여기에는 이명박 전 대통령이 대운하를 하지 않겠다고 해놓고 “사회적 여건 변화에 따라 운하가 재추진될 수도 있으니 이에 대한 대비가 필요하다”는 MB의 지시에 따라 대운하 재추진과 연계된 4대강 사업 계획을 수립했고, 2.5m만 준설해도 되는 수심을 6m가 되도록 지시했다는 내용도 포함됐습니다. 감사원의 이런 지적은 밝혀져야 할 진실이 이제야 드러난 것에 불과합니다. 이미 PD수첩은 <4대강,수심 6m의 비밀>이라는 방송에서 이와 같은 내용을 폭로한 적이 있었기 때문입니다. 2010년 8월 국토부는 MBC PD수첩의 <4대강,수심 6m의 비밀>편을 방송금지 가처분 신청했다가 기각됐고, 김재철 전 MBC 사장은 ‘사전시사'를 요구해 전면 방송보류 결정이 나오기도 했습니다. […] 많은 사람들이 4대강 사업이 대운하에서 말만 바꾼 것이고, 나라 예산을 마구 사용하고 후손에게 빚을 안기는 사업이라 얼마나 목이 터져라 외쳤습니까?

This report includes the fact that even after ex-president Lee Myung-bak said he will not pursue the canal project, gave a guideline that ‘The canal project can resume when social conditions are ready, so we need to get some preparation work done’. And he drew venture plans accordingly and ordered to dig the river deeper — six meters deep, although it should be only be 2.5 meters deep [if the purpose was to control water, not for canal construction] […] The Board of Audit and Inspection’s report is quite a belated revelation. Previously, the [investigative program] PD Notebook had already disclosed such truth via their episode entitled “The Six-Meter-Deep Secret of the Four Major Rivers”. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, however, requested to put this episode on hold, but their request was denied. The former president of MBC TV station, Kim Jae-chul [note: Kim was infamous for siding with the government on almost every issue] demanded to monitor the program beforehand and decided to hold off on broadcast. [note: the episode failed to air on the scheduled time and instead a short, heavily edited version of it was aired several weeks later [ko] in August 2010] […] Numerous people have cried out that the Four Major Rivers Project is merely a different name for the canal project and worried that it is a venture hemorrhaging the national budget that will impose huge debts on future generations.

Flickr user @

Image of the Four Major Rivers Project construction sites, South Korea. Image by Flickr user @Wetlands and Birds Korea (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Another fact unearthed was that after the canal plan hit a snag, major construction companies colluded together [ko] to secretly carry on with their initial construction plan, which is a much bigger scale, lucrative construction plan. A tweet below by Ahn Cheol-soo (@cheolsoo0919) has been retweeted more than 550 times:

@cheolsoo0919: 4대강 사업이 과정에도 문제가 많았음이 계속 밝혀지고 있습니다. 건설사들 담합이 있었던 것으로 드러났습니다. 이에 따라 경제개혁연대( )가 소송을 준비중입니다. 경제정의 실현에 힘을 더해주시기 바랍니다.

@cheolsoo0919: More revelations have been made about many problems committed during the Four Major Rivers construction process. There has allegedly been a racket between construction companies. The Solidarity for Economic Reform is preparing for a law suit now. ( ) Please support our cause for economic justice.

Politicians who tacitly agreed when the ruling party rammed the bill approving the project through in the National Assembly, now try to distance themselves from the failed project. Twitter users such as @yocla14 wrote [ko] offered sharply worded responses to them:

@yocla14: 3년 전까지 4대강 사업에 대해서 정부에 대한 전폭적인 지지를 호소하고 깨알같이 국회에서 거수기 노릇을 하던 사람들이 ‘국민이 속았다'며 개탄하는 코미디가 어디 있는가. 국민은 속지 않았고 당신도 속지 않았다. 당신이 국민을 속였을 뿐.

@yocla14: Those lawmakers who have rubber-stamped the bill in the National Assembly and used to express their whole-hearted support to the government’s Four Major Rivers project for the past three years– now suddenly started lamenting and cried out that ‘the government has deceived people’. What a comedic scene. The Korean public has not been fooled, and you have never been fooled either [by the former administration]. It is YOU who tried to fool people.


  • ....................

    It is becoming serious especially during the summer with rivers turning slightly green some of which look very serious in the pictures taken by reporters I just wonder what health problems will follow to the residents living nearyby I hope it is OKay to everybody including me my family

    • Washwill

      Kind of like the days gone by when before there were no, zero, no rice paddies on the peninsula, and farmers with info from south asia, ventured to create swamps on the hillsides and flat lands of the Chosun peninsula. I imagine there were hyper sensitive tree hugging geomancers and mudangs gone wild over relandscaping the landscape. Bandae chosun in gut eupsi Bandae haela! 무조건 반대, 끝없 반대 촛불 반대파 들아! 너부 떡떡인간들아!

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