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Heroes Who Built the Ieodo Ocean Research Station
Kim Si-jung, former minister of science and technology, feels like being on cloud nine these days in spite of having a sore throat. China's recent territorial claim to Ieodo, a submerged rock south of Jeju Island, ironically reflects the importance of the ocean research station built on the rock, for which he laid the groundwork while in office. He even feels proud that he made a successful example in preserving national interests by foreseeing future problems amid a rapidly changing international political environment.
When Kim visited the Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute (KORDI) in February 1993, shortly after taking office under the newly installed administration of President Kim Young-sam, he was briefed on a project to build an ocean research facility on Ieodo. The project was the brainchild of Dr. Lee Dong-yeong, then a principal researcher at the institute. He had been insisting on building the facility since 1991. After ordering a delay, Kim began studying the project.
First, Kim heard opinions from various government offices. All the eight relevant ministries including the Ministry of National Defense agreed to the project. Encouraged by the results, Kim explained the purpose of the proposed construction to Chung Jae-seok, deputy prime minister and concurrently minister of economic planning board, in early 1994 and succeeded in getting his commitment to allocate the necessary budget.
The KORDI's initial plan had been simple. Its idea was to plant steel pipes on the underwater rock and build an unmanned observatory. But Kim had a different idea. To him it seemed unreasonable to build such a small and shabby structure, if it was to serve various purposes, including weather and ocean observation, securing marine resources and clarifying territorial boundaries. What was needed, he thought, was an inhabitable facility equipped with a heliport for convenient travel.
History is made by intricate encounters. Kim`s meeting with Dr. Lee was crucial to the development of a scholarly idea into a national project that would protect the legendary island and the surrounding waters from territorial ambitions of neighboring countries. Another man played a vital role in the landmark construction: Dr. Sim Jae-cheol, a public works specialist who headed KORDI's Climate Change and Coastal Disaster Research Department, who had participated in the project from the beginning.
The design of the proposed station was completed in 1994. Kim sounded out the responses of other countries and international organizations, including the United Nations, with the assistance of Dr. Park Choon-ho, an authority on international maritime law. Most of the respondents expressed favorable opinions, saying there would be no problem in building an observation facility at a spot closer to Korea than any other country. The embassies of China and Japan in Seoul also were notified and neither objected.
Still, many residents of Jeju Island fiercely opposed the plan. They denounced it, asking how anybody dared to drive steel posts into the rock which had been regarded as a Utopian island enriching the mythical imagination of the islanders for such a long time. The KORDI succeeded in persuading the Jeju residents by assuring them the construction work would be kept unrevealed to outsiders as much as possible. While overseeing the construction from 1998, Sim made more than 10 visits to Jeju to talk to local folklorists and professors.
Despite delays due to difficulty in finding a contractor, the Ieodo base finally soared to 36 meters above sea level in May 2003. Korea became the owner of an ocean observation station thanks to the heroes who tenaciously carried out the project, looking ahead to the future of the nation. "If we tried to build the station today when China`s national power has rapidly expanded, the construction would have been impossible," Kim said.
Ahead of the general election, political parties are churning out myriads of promises. One wonders how many can compare to the Ieodo station project in terms of importance to the nation. Likewise, is there any cabinet minister today who is working so eagerly to realize a future-oriented policy as Kim did? Did anyone among the opponents to the Korea-U.S. FTA calculate in earnest the future value of the free trade deal? Have those opponents to the Jeju naval base construction ever imagined the security interests to be gained by Korea after the base is completed?
I want to suggest that politicians who are running to become lawmakers take the time to study at the least the history of the Ieodo station construction. Do we have to watch the 19th National Assembly open with yet another bunch of short-sighted politicians who are either incapable of or uninterested in looking ahead even a few years while pursuing their immediate personal interests?