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January 20, 2010
South Korea’s president proposes controversial river plan

A South Korean honor guard in Yongsan. Photo: Flickr user ImComKorea

Worldfocus contributing blogger Jamblichus analyzes the leadership style of the conservative South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, which he likens to that of a CEO, and his controversial plan to dredge Korea’s major waterways.

If you were a shareholder in the Republic of Korea, plc., you’d probably be quite content and thinking about buying more stock: Lee has clinched a huge project to sell locally developed nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates, a first for the country and as a result making South Korea only the sixth place in the world to export nuclear reactors.

He has launched an ambitious $19.2 billion program to dredge and “clean up” the nation’s four major rivers, pledging the project will generate thousands of jobs, improve water supply and quality, and prevent flooding, while also boosting the nation’s “aquatic tourism.” Sounds good, does it not?

Except that most people who know anything about it are united in their opposition. Take Hong Jong-ho, an economist at Hanyang University, for example, who argues that the project would create an “environmental disaster” that would worsen flooding and pollute the two rivers that supply drinking water for two-thirds of the nation’s 49 million people and that costs would run as high $50 billion.

(Lee claimed that 60 percent to 70 percent of it would be recovered by selling sand and gravel scraped from the riverbeds — hardly likely to have a positive environmental impact surely? — and that the rest would come from private investment. )

And opposition party chairman Chung Sye-kyun claims the administration has not conducted a proper feasibility study and its environmental impact assessment on the 634-kilometer area, completed in just four months, was slap-dash and troubling. Plans to place the project in the hands of project in the hands of the Korea Water Resources Corporation, which is not subject to National Assembly budget reviews, have also raised concerns, according to local paper the Hankyoreh.

Yet Lee is highly unlikely to pay much attention to their fretting; you see, Mr Lee’s silvery lining as leader has a cloud attached and it hovers above everything he touches like a possible ratings downgrade from a credit agency or a sell recommendation from an influential analyst. The cloud, which is a towering cumulonimbus, rather than your wispy cirrus is this: President Lee runs the nation like a company.

He is no democrat, for a CEO with a penchant for collaborative leadership or one who recognizes the value of dissent is generally a weak CEO. To Lee, those who disagree with his position are renegade shareholders who may damage the stock value. They must be brought on side or silenced before the international markets notice.

The president is equally aware of who the majority shareholders are in his enterprise. They are the conglomerates, the establishment academics whose intellectual prostitution allows for their recruitment as technocratic advisers, they are the fund managers and construction companies.

“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still,” wrote British philosopher John Stuart Mill, but that is the mindset of a philosopher, not a businessman.

So as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gets its funding shut off and its offices closed down; as the National Human Rights Commission gets its funding reduced and its independence threatened; as the judiciary faces an almighty assault on its integrity, it is a little disconcerting to read that CEO Lee’s government is to invest $1.5 billion, yes, billion, in building marinas and subsidizing the construction of yacht clubs.

Whether this seems like an appropriate priority for a nation’s government dear reader, led by a businessman or otherwise, I leave to your impartial assessment.

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