[Herald Interview] ‘Central oversight essential to move Saemangeum forward’

By Won Ho-jung

Saemangeum chief urges next president to pay more attention to mega project

  • Published : May 4, 2017 - 15:47
  • Updated : May 4, 2017 - 17:32
Creating land about two-thirds the size of Seoul is not an easy job. Saemangeum Project, a mega project designed to turn a sea area into 283 square kilometers of reclaimed land, is the biggest land development in Korea so far.

But to successfully complete the project, it must have a central authority to oversee it, in light of the overlapping authorities of related ministries and municipalities, said the head of the development agency.

“It’s a structural problem,” Saemangeum Development and Investment Agency Administrator Lee Byoung-gook said in an interview with The Korea Herald at the agency’s Seoul promotion center.
Saemangeum Development and Investment Agency Administrator Lee Byoung-gook at the Saemangeum exhibition center in Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“The Saemangeum area is about two-thirds the size of Seoul, but it touches three areas within North Jeolla Province -- Gunsan, Buan and Gimje. We are constantly negotiating with them on every decision.”

The Saemangeum Project is a gigantic government plan that seeks to create 283 square kilometers of new land along the western coast of Korea by building a 33.9-kilometer sea wall and filling the blocked-off area. The area has been divided into sections for international business; leisure and tourism; agriculture and biological development; residences; and environmental conservation.

It has been ongoing for the past three decades and has gone through six administrations.

Due to the scope of the project, the SDIA must work with various ministries to gain the necessary licenses to pursue business in the new city.

“As administrator, I am at the level of a vice minister, but it is not easy to convince ministries to provide support,” he said. “We have the space, but the actual power to carry out various functions within Saemangeum still rest with different agencies.”

The sea wall’s construction was completed in 2010, marking the start of the recruitment of investors to provide funding to fill in the new land and build infrastructure.

“The project is still in its early stages. Relative to our final goal, about 20 to 30 percent of the land has been reclaimed, and less than 10 percent of the infrastructure has been put in place. The plans are all there,” Lee said.

The reason the project cannot move along faster is because the SDIA does not have the central authority to offer investors special incentives to invest in the area. This is why Lee hopes that the next administration, which will be decided Tuesday, will place the project directly under presidential authority.

“Thankfully, the strongest presidential contenders have put forth aggressive promises regarding Saemangeum. Front-runner Moon Jae-in, for example, has said that he will personally look after the project,” he said.

Still, Lee acknowledged that the vast sum needed to propel the project forward makes it difficult for any president to fully commit.

“The land reclamation alone will take between 5 and 10 trillion won ($8.83 billion). The infrastructure is another 5 trillion won, to create land and roads. Controlling the water quality is taking 250 billion won a year. It’s a lot of money, but the results don’t materialize right away,” he said.

“If the groundwork is laid right, we can create the foundation for successful business. It’s a project with a lot of potential, resources for the future.”

With the right attention from the government, Lee says that he believes the basic infrastructure required for the project to gain momentum could be completed by 2022 or 2023.

“We must do our best to make Saemangeum a success, for the country but especially for the locals in the area who have waited for us patiently,” he said. “Saemangeum is definitely a precious asset with a lot of potential, but there will be difficulties. It will all be worth it if we can follow through on our promises to the end.” 

By Won Ho-jung (