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The Triple-Stabbed West SeaThe three culprits: Saemangeum reclamation, the Hebei Sprit oil spill, and industrialization in China
Lee Ga-ram, Reporter  |
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승인 2008.02.26  20:37:19
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Editor's Note
The West Sea is considered to be the pride of Korea. Not only for the rich marine products it offers us, but also for the vast mud flat, which is one of the best three worldwide. This sea has been an important part of Korea. Now, this precious pride, which has been formed over tens of thousands of years, is in danger, due to our neglect and abuse. It is a time to realize the seriousness of this problem as well as our overall responsibility and look further into the future.

-An Na-hyun, Editor of Social Affairs Div.


KOREA IS blessed with its beautiful sea that surrounds three sides of the country. Koreans take the easily accessible sea for granted, especially the West Sea, with its world-class scenery and sand bars. However, the three disasters: the Saemangeum reclamation project, the Hebei Spirit oil spill, and the effects of China’s industrialization, aggravated the environment of West Sea. These tragedies are occurring in three different places, and yet simultaneously ruining the West Sea, once a treasure of nature.

Part 1: Saemangeum reclamation project 

Dying lives at Saemangeum


   The ecosystem of Saemangeum has been disturbed because of the Saemangeum reclamation project, the construction of a 33km tide embankment and reclamation of the sand bar in Jeollabuk-do. After the completion of the Saemangeum embankment in 2006, authorities started to control the depth of the water through a floodgate. Unnatural changes in the water level turned the rich sand bar that once embraced thousands of living creatures into rigid land. After the authorities excessively lowered the water level in July of 2007, a large group of yellow shellfish died on Gyehwa Island, during what was supposed to be their breeding season. Moreover, a massive amount of salt from the dried sand bar has blown up and formed a storm, torturing the residents of Saemangeum. Water pollution has also become a serious problem. Environmentalists insist that the project will end up like Sihwa lake, an artificial lake which became rotted due to sewage inflow into closed water. Lee Seung-min, a researcher at the Citizens’ Institute for Environmental Studies, says, “No matter how much human technology has developed, people cannot handle the rapid contamination of nature.”

Not old-adhering, a bold decision is needed
   Twenty years ago, the Saemangeum project was first designed for agricultural use in order to overcome a deficiency in the supply of rice. Now that Korea is affluent with rice, the adequacy of the project should have been boldly reconsidered. However, the new government unreasonably changed the plan to use the Saemangeum area for industrial purposes, to which many scholars have expressed negative opinions. While its industrial success is questionable, the Saemangeum project has already caused substantial environmental damage. “Sufficient consumers and laborers are needed for a city to develop. However, Saemangeum does not satisfy these conditions,” says Park Woo-suh (Prof., Dept. of Admin.). Infrastructures such as Gunsan-Janghang National Industrial Complex already exist which can handle the tasks planned for the Saemangeum. The government should consider using the best out of the existing infrastructures instead of funding another eco-destructing construction.

In desperate need of attention
   What Saemangeum needs the most is students’ attention. Having heard of the issue too much for their twenty-some lives, most university students became numb to the issue. Therefore, the communities that lived on the Saemangeum sand bar and neighboring sea are now abandoned. The communities need people’s attention to hold onto their hope. Students can make a difference by actively participating in the process of setting policies. They can try to stop the Saemangeum project or at least make the construction more eco-friendly. University students can also show their attention by helping the residents of Saemangeum raise their voice to the society. Being mostly old, the residents of Saemangeum are vulnerable to new and complicated information; therefore, it is difficult for them to oppose the government. Students can act as information deliverers who explain difficult legal terms or up-to-date environmental research to the residents of Saemangeum.

Part 2: The Hebei Spirit oil spill in Taean 

The monstrous disaster in Taean


   An oil tanker, Hebei Spirit, was hit by a Samsung tugboat and spilled 10,500 tons of oil. The Hebei Spirit oil spill was surreal for the Taean residents. The beautiful beach that used to attract tourists was filled with black oil. “There is no oil left to wipe off on the seashore,” says a volunteer worker few months after the incident. The beaches on the surface seemed clean. However, the aftermath of the oil spill is unimaginable.
   Tar balls formed among the oil spill area was found out to be lethal to the living organisms. A research team led by Choi Kyeong-ho (Prof., Seoul National Univ.) conducted an experiment proving the toxicity of tar from the spilt oil. They put the water fleas in the tar-dissolved water (60mg/l) for 48 hours and about 50% of them died. Unfortunately, many evidences of this experiment have appeared in the sea. On Jan. 16, thousands of dead squillas (mantis crab) were pushed upon the shore by tidal wave. Many environmentalists presume that lugworms, crabs, clams, and other sea creatures will also die sooner or later. 
   280,000L of oil spill dispersant was sprinkled over the damaged area. Instead of dissolving the oil, the dispersant spread the toxic chemicals and broke the tar balls into pieces, making it harder to remove them. Moreover, according to an experiment carried out by Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM), the toxicity of the dispersant itself was also proven to cause damage to the ecosystem. Fish from the oil spilt site lived much shorter in the dispersant-treated water.

Dodged responsibility
   The government should have predicted upcoming hazardous circumstances and taken technical measures to protect the citizens from them. However, the government has not performed its role successfully. Although visible oil on the beach has almost been cleaned, unreachable oil is still left. For instance, the second oil wave surged on to the coast once again on Jan. 25, making residents even more hopeless. The government should have provided proper research environments for the experts to predict such consequences. Additionally, since the government had not organized research, there was not any improvement in the recovery process after the Sea-prince oil spill*. If proper research had been done, the technical measures would have been taken and the second damage could have been avoided. Based on the research, the government could have informed the people what to do and what not to do. The excessive use of the oil spill dispersant by Korean Coast Guard could have been stopped if they had been informed of the harmful effects.
In need of warm hands
   University students may not have the actual power to make this disaster disappear, but their concern can quicken the recovery. KFEM is trying to conduct much research, but they are having a hard time because of the lack of manpower. Volunteering as a student researcher can be helpful for the fast recovery and prevent future oil spills. In addition, communities damaged by the oil spill need people's care. “When the oil just leaked, residents of Taean needed hands to wipe out the oil. Now, they need a remedy for their broken hearts,” says Lee Pyung-joo, the director of Seosan-Taean KFEM who is in direct contact with hurt people.

Part 3: Industrialization in China 

Growing China, crying West Sea


   As China started its rapid development, the West Sea has faced its critical environmental crisis. “Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao, and Hong Kong, which are located along the east coast line of China, are the cities that achieved great industrialization in China,” says Heo Seung, a researcher at the West Sea Fisheries Research Institute. Annually, one hundred million tons of pollutants are flowing in the West Sea from those industrialized cities of China. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has designated the West Sea area as the “dead zone,” meaning it severely lacks oxygen. Since Korea and China face each other with the West Sea in between, Korea’s west coast can be intensively affected by them. The West Sea is shallow with the average water depth of only 45m. Moreover, surrounded by the continent of Korea and China, the water in the West Sea does not circulate actively. The water that enters the West Sea stays for at least five years. It is like a pool that is shared by Korea and China. If China or Korea emits polluted water into the West Sea, it would be the same as dumping dirt into their own stagnant pool.
   A research revealed that about five million used batteries are dumped into the West Sea every year. Chinese sailing ships are assumed to be the owners of the dumped batteries. Many environmental researchers predict that fish and shellfish will deform and die if toxic substances from the batteries such as mercury, zinc, and ferrous dissolve into the West Sea. Furthermore, if Koreans ingest fish or shellfish that are contaminated with heavy-metallic substances, they will be poisoned by heavy metal.
   Another problem is China’s mass construction of the Three Gorges dam, which is the biggest dam in the world with the height of 185m and the length of 2,309m. The amount of water it can hold is 39.3 billion tons which is 14 times greater than that of Soyang river dam. Because Three Gorges dam has been preventing a massive amount of water from flowing into the West Sea, the salinity of the sea water has skyrocketed and the essential nutrients are running short. Such drastic changes can disturb the balance of ecosystem and may end destroying sea creatures.

Time for action: better late than never
   Before it gets too late to clear up the polluted West Sea, the cure should be prepared right now. China is expected to achieve even greater and faster development, as it is about to hold the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. If industries of China develop much more, the country is expected to emit more polluted substances into the West Sea. This problem is a sensitive issue that can also aggravate the diplomatic relationship between Korea and China. Therefore, unilaterally requesting the Chinese government to watch out for their contamination cannot be a good solution. The Korea-China Joint Ocean Research Center has already been established, and they annually research the condition of the West Sea. However, their jobs have remained within only researching. The center should be modified into the Korea-China Joint Countermovement Research Center. They should not only research the current condition of the West Sea but actively look for ways to overcome the pollution. After reorganizing the center, the researchers of both countries will be able to conclude a detailed treaty that can restrict the amount of pollutant emission. The modified center and detailed treaty will be able to restore the current situation and prevent further pollution.

                                                  *                         *                        *

   The three disasters appear unrelated, but they have two common factors; they are man-made, and they threaten the West Sea. What humans have done to the West Sea has reached its limit. If this eco-destructing tendency goes on, people might not be able to see any living things in the West Sea in the near future. People tend to be busy searching for scapegoats. Nevertheless, the guilt lies in all human-beings. Before blaming someone else to take all the responsibility, people should humbly accept the consequences of their faults and strive for the recovery of nature. After all, the beautiful nature is the best legacy for your descendants.


*The Sea-prince oil spill: An oil spill happened at Jeollanam-do in 1995. The marine resources have decreased since the incident, and the remnants of spilt oil were still found in 2007.


Get your highlighter 1: Helping Saemangeum
“We get more and more exhausted,” says Go Eun-sik, a manager of the <Sand Bar School-Gre>. Just visiting and showing that people are still attentive to the Saemangeum can be encouraging.
1. Visit Saemangeum and experience the sea life
The <Sand Bar School-Gre> offers a two-day sand bar field trip. The members of Gre introduce lives of fishermen, living things in sand bar, and the negative aftereffects of Saemangeum reclamation.
Cost : \25,000 per person
2. Nonghwal, now get some Gethwal
   Many students consider nongwhal, the farm activity, as the memorable romance of university life. A sand bar activity can be a good alternative. The manager of Gre says there are plenty to help out in the sea farm too. The village can hold up to 50 students.
Call 063-583-3985 (Sand bar school - Gre) or visit to register

Get your highlighter 2: Helping Taean
   “I repeat, ‘constant’ participation is the first priority,” says Choi Ye-yong, director of management at KFEM. Keep this in mind and look below for what you can do.
1. Be a student researcher
   To examine the impacts of the oil spill and to restore the sea faster and easier for the next accident, much research is needed. There are three areas of research: the influence of the oil spill on society, health, and the ecosystem.
- How long? : You can participate every day and for two weeks or more, or you can participate once or twice a week and for few months.
Call 02-735-7034 (Citizen’s Institute for Environmental Studies) or visit
2. Still need your golden oil-wiping hands
   Many people think that there is no more need to wipe off the oil on the seashores. However, some alienated islands are still suffering. Going to the islands that are still in need of help and wiping the oil off the coast will be a great help.
- How long? : It takes more time than usual because it is an on-board journey. If you long to give more help, one night-two day volunteer is recommended.
3. Go spread this information. The more, always the merrier.

   The damages represented above are just the tip of the iceberg. While interviewing people and gathering information, I was astonished at how serious the condition of the West Sea was. In the past, development meant constructing. Well, does it still? Destroying nature to develop is not one step further but two steps backwards. Now since the untouched nature has become scarce, development, in the far sight, should mean preserving nature.



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