Faith speaks in Seoul

In a rare show of unity, South Korea’s religious leaders have joined forces against a project to dam the country’s four main rivers. Andrew Pascoe reports.

Some say faith can move mountains – but that’s not where its relationship with nature ends, according to South Korea’s outspoken religious leaders. There are few issues capable of uniting four major religious groups traditionally at odds with each other, but the South Korean government’s controversial Four Rivers Project is one of them.

Mounting public anger over the environmental impact of the giant engineering scheme, which aims to dredge and dam the country’s four major waterways, was overshadowed by economic issues during the recent G20 summit in Seoul and has been sidelined by global media more interested in the flare-up in tensions with North Korea.

But locally, a Catholic, Buddhist, Won-Buddhist and Protestant protest has resonated more forcefully than any issue since the national stand-off over beef imports from the United States in 2008.

The nexus of the religious campaign is an open-air Mass in tribute to nature, held every day since February this year by Catholic priests in Paldang, 60 kilometres east of Seoul. When I visited the riverbank service in November, around 30 people sang hymns and received communion before a makeshift crucifix fashioned from a tree. As an organic farmer spoke about how his livelihood had been crippled by the so-called Four Rivers restoration project, bulldozers were whining in the background.

In many other countries, holding a religious ceremony in the countryside would hardly be incendiary stuff. But in South Korea, this small act of dissent against president Lee Myung Bak’s massive public works project has snowballed.

Seventy per cent of citizens reportedly oppose the 22 trillion won (US$19.2 billion) project to re-sculpture the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan Rivers and convert the adjacent farmland into tourism infrastructure. The keystone of president Lee’s “Green New Deal” to create jobs, the Four Rivers project is billed by the government as an eco-tourism vehicle that will also prevent flooding and maintain a clean water supply.

But critics say the project threatens to destabilise critical ecosystems and contaminate the rivers, which provide drinking water to greater Seoul’s 22 million residents.

Tragically, at the outset of 2011, the groundswell of anti-government sentiment inspired by the “holy hell-raisers” seems unlikely to halt or water down the project. Construction of 16 new dams is well under way, as is the renovation of dozens of old dam structures along the four rivers. Other work includes reinforcing 209 miles of riverbanks with cement and dredging 570 million cubic metres of sediment from about 430 miles of riverbed.

The project has already decimated farming communities. Yu Young Hoon, a farmer from Namyangju, an area north-east of Seoul, said over 64,000 people had been displaced by the project – some removed forcefully when they tried to protect their land from the bulldozers.

Yu was one of the first to campaign against the project, organising farmers’ protests. “We farmers fought alone, but the government’s power is so strong,” he said. “So I asked the Catholic Church for help.”

Father Cho Hae Bung, priest at the Catholic Seoul Archdiocese took up the fight, inaugurating the daily Mass and founding the Catholic Solidarity for Deterrence of the Four Rivers Project.

Since then, leaders from other religions have joined the campaign. Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist and Won-Buddhist figureheads preside over a weekly multi-denominational prayer vigil in Seoul, an exceptional show of solidarity among the South Korean religions. They have also organised rallies and fasts in central Seoul and called on citizens to boycott the major companies involved in the project’s construction. A Buddhist monk even burnt himself to death in protest.

The churches’ joint stand has galvanised widespread public opposition to the project. Civil society groups, including a 2,800-strong alliance of professors, a students’ coalition and environmental organisations have gained widespread support despite largely uncritical domestic media coverage about the project.

Sociology professor at Korea University, Kim Chul Kyoo, said Korean religious groups had a history of involvement in environmental issues, including leading the protest against the Saemangeum seawall project, a 34-kilometre barrage on the coast of the Yellow Sea, in the 1990s. “Each of the religions emphasises life – not only human life, but other species and biodiversity within this critical ecosystem,” Kim said.

A year on from the project’s groundbreaking, construction is nearing the halfway point and only a few farmers remain in the affected regions; the rest have been removed or given up. The project is ahead of schedule and seems likely to meet its completion date in late 2011, before the nation heads to the polls for presidential elections.

The strength of the religious activism motivated the main opposition Democratic Party to take up the fight as a critical political issue. The party blockaded parliament in wild scenes in December – for the first time attracting mainstream global press coverage about the Four Rivers project – in a bid to slash the scheme’s 2011 budget. The party succeeded in getting a 270 billion won (US$235 million) cut, far short of the 6.7 trillion won (US$5.9 billion) reduction they had been targeting.

At the same time, court bids by citizens and civic groups to have the project declared unlawful failed in December. Further court challenges are expected to suffer the same fate.  

While hope is waning, Father Cho said the riverbank Mass he started just shy of one year ago would continue to advocate on nature’s behalf. “When the Government stops, we will stop,” he said.

And while Korea’s religious leaders are doing much more than praying for the country’s ecological future, they must be wondering whether nothing less than an act of God is now capable of putting president Lee’s pet project in limbo.


Andrew Pascoe is an Australian journalist based in South Korea.

Homepage image by Andrew Pascoe