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Saemangeum Jamboree: what went wrong?

Criticism mounts over mishandling of W117b project, politicians engage in blame game

By Lee Jung-joo, Shin Ji-hye

Published : Aug. 7, 2023 - 19:03

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British members who participated in the 2023 Saemangeum World Scout Jamboree are carrying their luggage for evacuation at the campsite in Buan-gun, North Jeolla Province on Sunday. (Yonhap) British members who participated in the 2023 Saemangeum World Scout Jamboree are carrying their luggage for evacuation at the campsite in Buan-gun, North Jeolla Province on Sunday. (Yonhap)

Saemangeum is a reclaimed tidal flat area of Buan, North Jeolla Province, which was dammed by the government’s Saemangeum Seawall Project in 2006. The area was first introduced as a potential location to host the event in 2015 when the Korea Scout Association chose Saemangeum over Goseong, Gangwon Province, in its bid to host the 2023 World Scout Jamboree.

In 2015, the Park Geun-hye administration pushed for Korea’s victory in the bid, saying that the government will provide the support needed to host the jamboree successfully. While these efforts were halted due to Park’s impeachment in December 2016, the Moon Jae-in administration resumed work on the bid once Moon took office in May 2017. Saemangeum’s bid to host the World Scout Jamboree was successful in August 2017.

In December 2018, the Moon administration passed the Special Act on Support for the 2023 Saemangeum World Scout Jamboree to prepare for a successful World Scout Jamboree and to provide the necessary equipment and aid for it. The organizing committee, which was established in July 2020, was allocated a budget of approximately 100 billion won ($76.6 million) for jamboree preparations.

However, concerns over the suitability of the Saemangeum site for camping persisted from the start. Many deemed it inappropriate to select Saemangeum as the jamboree location due to the area's lack of shade, making it unsuitable for summer camping. Local politicians and civic and social groups issued warnings about the need for thorough preparations and even the possible cancellation of certain events, but the government disregarded them and pushed ahead with the jamboree.

In September 2021, North Jeolla Province Councilor Seong Gyeong-chan expressed concern at a special meeting, saying, "The jamboree period is the hottest time of the year, so even if the date is delayed by a few days, it should be held in a pleasant environment." He also warned that failing to do so could "be the starting point of infection," referring to the spread of illnesses like COVID-19.

Participants of the 2023 Saemangeum World Scout Jamboree gather in the shade of a tent at the Jambyeori campsite in Buan-gun, North Jeolla Province on Friday. (Yonhap) Participants of the 2023 Saemangeum World Scout Jamboree gather in the shade of a tent at the Jambyeori campsite in Buan-gun, North Jeolla Province on Friday. (Yonhap)

No central control

One of the main causes behind the problems faced at the jamboree is being identified as the absence of a central authority or "control tower." Recent host countries of the jamboree, such as the United States and Japan, primarily organized the event with the leadership of experienced Scout heads. In contrast, South Korea's organization was led by inexperienced government departments without a central control figure.

The jamboree organizing committee in Korea has a total of five chairpersons. Initially, there were two co-chairmen: Gender Equality and Family Minister Kim Hyun-sook and Rep. Kim Yun-deok of the Democratic Party of Korea. However, in February, additional co-chairmen were appointed, including Interior Minister Lee Sang-min, Culture Minister Park Bo-gyoon and Korea Scout Association Kang Tae-sun, all sharing responsibility. Kim Kwan-young, governor of North Jeolla Province, heads the working-level affairs as the executive chairman.

Gender Equality Minister Kim Hyun-sook gives a briefing at the press center in Saemangeum Jamboree in Buan-gun, North Jeolla Province on Monday. (Yonhap) Gender Equality Minister Kim Hyun-sook gives a briefing at the press center in Saemangeum Jamboree in Buan-gun, North Jeolla Province on Monday. (Yonhap)

Critics have pointed out that the problems stemmed from a lack of understanding of necessary facilities and programs in the field, as government ministries with no direct experience in Scouting activities held key roles in the organization of the event

Criticism extends to the mishandling of the 117.1 billion won budget, with most of the money being spent on infrastructure building in the region, a less relevant aspect of the jamboree event

Critics also accused public officials involved in the event of wasting budget funds on foreign business trips in the name of jamboree preparation. In the eight years leading up to the opening of the event, officials from related organizations traveled abroad 99 times for activities related to the Saemangeum Jamboree.

In May 2018, five officials from North Jeolla Province took an eight-day, six-night business trip to Switzerland and Italy, ostensibly to investigate "successful World Jamboree hosting cases." The itinerary included tourist attractions such as Interlaken, Lucerne, Milan and Venice, even though Switzerland and Italy have no experience hosting a World Jamboree. In December of the same year, officials from North Jeolla Province traveled to Australia to visit the Australian Scout Federation, and in 2019, representatives from the Gender Equality and Family Ministry and North Jeolla Province went to the United States to observe the 24th World Scout Jamboree.

Pointing fingers

Political parties are trading blame over the issues surrounding the 2023 Saemangeum World Scout Jamboree.

Rep. Kang Min-guk of the People Power Party pointed the finger at President Moon Jae-in and the Democratic Party. “The Saemangeum Jamboree was an event that President Moon personally took an active interest in, even bringing it up himself during his first meeting with his top secretaries since taking office,” Kang said.

“Seeing as how none of the facilities at the jamboree site are well-prepared, it is questionable whether the budget was used appropriately.” Kang blamed the Moon administration for not preparing in advance and pledged that the Yoon Suk Yeol government and the People Power Party would take measures to improve conditions and hold the Democratic Party accountable.

Rep. Park Seong-jun of the Democratic Party countered, criticizing the People Power Party and arguing that the current administration should not blame the previous one for its mistakes. “The jamboree location was chosen during the Park Geun-hye administration in 2015, and the Moon administration worked hard to host a successful World Scout Jamboree,” said Park. “How a government prepared for the event after the bid passed and how it prepared a year before the event is a different matter.”

Park also criticized Minister of Gender Equality and Family Kim Hyun-sook and the ministry's failure to prevent the problems that emerged.

During a parliamentary inspection held in October 2022, Rep. Lee Won-taeg of the Democratic Party urged Minister Kim to prepare detailed measures to counter potential issues, including extreme weather and pest control. “If we don’t prepare thoroughly, the jamboree could face serious issues. Please take appropriate measures to prevent such problems actively,” Lee said. Minister Kim replied that all appropriate measures would be taken.

Besides the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, the Ministry of Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Park Bo-gyoon, also co-chairs on the organizing committee, face criticism for poor administrative management. However, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has been criticized the most, as its minister served as a co-chair since July 2020.

Lee Jae-myung, leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, watches news related to the Saemangeum Jamboree during a top-level meeting at the office of the National Assembly on Monday. (Yonhap) Lee Jae-myung, leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, watches news related to the Saemangeum Jamboree during a top-level meeting at the office of the National Assembly on Monday. (Yonhap)

Failed research

As the Saemangeum site lacks areas with shade, the organizing committee -- in addition to its 1,720 resting areas and 57 mist-spraying facilities -- proposed to install a 7.4-kilometer-long tunnel covered with vines that provide shade for the participants, according to their own vegetation research.

However, as the environmental conditions of where the research was conducted highly differed from Saemangeum’s actual conditions, the vines didn’t grow as abundantly, and the jamboree kicked off with just an awning tent covering the top of the tunnel.

Additionally, during the press tour in April, the organizing committee explained that Saemangeum will stay cool during the summer as winds will blow from a sea located nearby, addressing concerns about accidents that could occur due to the heat wave. Instead, current jamboree conditions prove the opposite of that, as temperatures remain high, reaching up to 35 degrees Celsius. The wind blowing from the sea has been creating a humid atmosphere, which makes the area feel hotter than it is.

The organizing committee faces additional complaints on its flooding prevention measures. Whenever it rained on Saemangeum from May to July, large puddles were formed in the tidal flat area. Jamboree organizers installed drainage ditches inside and outside the camping grounds to prevent flooding and used water pumps to drain stagnant water. However, from the first day, such measures were also deemed useless as puddles remained on the grounds from the first day of the jamboree. Scouts were pictured standing on top of pallets to pitch their tents on top of it.