A festering standoff between the authorities and a frail Buddhist nun over construction of a long tunnel through a mountain near the southern city of Daegu has taken a turn for the worse and raised fears of a tragic ending.
On a hunger strike that passed the 90-day mark yesterday, the nun Jiyul has now hidden herself away from the media, authorities and even from her supporters after leaving a house near Cheong Wa Dae where she had been fasting until Friday.
"As far as I know, she received a word of rejection from the government that her demands are unacceptable. Then, she called her colleagues and supporters and asked them to take care of the work after her, and moved to an undisclosed place," Seo Jae-chul, an official at the environmentalist group Green Korea United, told The Korea Herald.
The news of Jiyul`s sudden vanishing act refocused public attention on the four-year-long controversy over the tunnel project and the fate of the 47-year-old monk.
A band of religious leaders, Buddhists and Christians, held a joint news conference yesterday at Jogye Temple in Seoul and announced they were starting a hunger strike in solidarity with Jiyul.
In a desperate move to save Jiyul, a group of environmental activists and citizens started holding candlelit vigils in Seoul, trying to appeal to the hearts of Koreans. The vigils are now spreading to seven other major cities.
The Environmental Committee of the Jogye Order, the largest in Korean Buddhism, said in a statement on Friday, "The government`s irresponsibility and their breaking of a promise are forcing Jiyul to a dead end. It should answer immediately the increasing calls from the public and civil groups to act on the issue."
While staying alone in a house near Cheong Wa Dae, Jiyul stubbornly refused all help, even from her own family. She never allowed a doctor to examine her, but doctors say 90 days of hunger strike can take a human being to the brink of death.
"Her condition had deteriorated recently. If (people) don`t reach her in time and dissuade her from the fast, the feared thing may occur," a police officer at Jongno Police Station said.
Before she disappeared, Jiyul called the policeman whose duty was to watch and check on her condition every day.
"She thanked me for taking care of her so far, and said she will not hold me to blame," he said.
People close to Jiyul refrained, however, from linking her disappearance to any extreme choice, saying she just wanted to continue her protest in a quieter place, undisturbed by visitors.
"She will not let go of herself in this way. She must be taking time now to pull herself together," Green Korea`s Seo said.
The controversy over the large-scale government project to build a 13-kilometer tunnel through Mount Cheonseong is one of the most resilient environmental issues of recent years.
In the fight to get the project reviewed, Jiyul staged four "fast-unto-death" protests, subsisting on water and the occasional cup of light tea for a total of more than 200 days.
"I look back at the past four years, only to conclude that all I had asked was that a proper environmental influence appraisal (of the tunnel project) should be conducted. Whether the tunnel, which cuts right into 10 environmental preservation areas designated by law would have influence on the environment or not (is what I want) ... Was it too much to ask?" she wrote earlier in a message directed to President Roh Moo-hyun and posted on the Web site of Emergency Board to Save Mount. Cheonseong, a civil group formed to block the construction.
While the issue may appear simple at first glance, the government is caught in a very difficult situation.
The projected tunnel is a crucial part of the nation`s vital high-speed train service linking the two major cities - the capital Seoul and the major port Busan - into a one hour 45 minute journey, which otherwise would take 2 hours and 40 minutes.
But environmentalists insist that if the tunneling work proceeds, it will endanger more than 30 rare animals and plants on the mountain, including Korean clawed salamanders.
Like Jiyul, monks from several temples scattered on Mount Cheonseong and other areas on the projected Seoul-Busan rail link have joined forces with environmentalists against the plan. They question the credibility of the official environmental influence appraisal conducted in 1994, which gave a green light to the construction by suggesting the project site is not of great value for environmental preservation and the damage to the environment should be minimal.
Other research commissioned by Korea Train Express, the operator of the bullet train service, backed the original report, but injunction seekers did not accept that either.
Coming at a time when several huge-budget governmental projects such as capital relocation and the Saemangeum reclamation projects are facing major setbacks and oppositions from various groups, the authorities may not be able to afford to give in to a hunger striker, experts say.
"Some people are saying that the Cheong Wa Dae or the government should step in, but the project is being implemented through due procedures. Why should Cheong Wa Dae stop it? We`re sorry for the agony of Monk Jiyul but what is not acceptable is just not acceptable," Moon Jae-in, presidential secretary for civil affairs, was quoted as saying by a local daily.
In August last year, Moon visited the monk on the 57th day of a previous hunger strike and pledged to suspend the construction until a court ruled on the viability of the project. At the time, both sides agreed to respect the ruling.
Months later, the Busan court ruled against the injunction seekers, saying any further delay to the tunnel`s construction will cause an economic loss of nearly 2 trillion won whereas the probability of environmental damage seemed considerably low and not clear.
Following the court decision, the construction resumed, and Jiyul defiantly started her fourth hunger strike on Oct. 27.
"In this kind of construction, there`s always some kind of damage to environment. It is a policy decision to give more weight on which of the two things, the environmental preservation or the economic benefits from development, based of course on an accurate assessment," an official at the environmental ministry said.
During the presidential campaign in 2002, Roh pledged to Buddhist communities that he would reconsider the project from square one - a move seen as a bid to woo the votes of Buddhists, who comprise about 26 percent of the population and are the largest religious group in the country.
Last week, Uri party leaders met environmental ministry officials to see if there is any possibility of a breakthrough only to conclude there is no way for the party to intervene.
By Lee Sun-young