By George Hogan
The debate has raged for the past 30 years.
Experts, nationalists and ordinary citizens on both sides of the East Sea have offered supporting and dissenting research, projections, and opinions. Political posturing has overshadowed much of the debate as everyone imaginable has opined endlessly, questioning the feasibility of such a project.
``Is it worth it?" ``Will it be safe?" You name it ― it has been called into the debate. Well, it looks like those days are waning and, finally, plans are beginning to materialize. The question of ``should Korea and Japan build a tunnel that links the two nations?" might just be answered.
In early January this year, a research committee was tapped to start drawing up ``specific construction plans" for the project. The proposed route would connect Geoje Island near Busan to Karatsu in northwestern Japan by an undersea tunnel. It would be the longest of its kind in the world at 209km and one of the most impressive engineering feats of the 21st century.
For many Koreans though, the thought of such a connection invokes memories and emotions of a dark and violent past under Japanese colonial rule and I would never suggest that those feelings are unjustified. They are. This is understandably a very touchy and delicate issue, which has clearly been reflected in its 30 years of rocky debate.
I do think, however, that bridging the two nations would not only set a course towards a more trustful relationship, but would also diversify South Korea's economy, ease trade costs, boost the tourist industry and improve the national image around the world.
Some say the project carries a 200-trillion-won price tag and, considering the state of the economy right now, even discussing such plans smacks of irresponsibility. Others point out the absurdity of building an undersea tunnel in a hotbed of seismic activity. Both of those points are valid and will need to be addressed, but if the project is deemed feasible and safe, the benefits severely outweigh the drawbacks.
South Korea has tried tirelessly to push its current ``Korea Sparkling" tourism campaign. Seoul is getting facelifts and feverishly vying for a larger share of the Northeast Asian tourist industry, but is still seeing very little fruit for their troubles. The industry is essentially centered on Seoul and, for many reasons, is simply not attracting a substantial amount of non-Asian tourists.
As of now, Korea is locked in a battle of trying to prove itself as a world tourist destination, which is clearly demonstrated by the slew of sales angles presented in their promotional commercials. The tunnel could potentially provide some direction. If built, Korea will no longer have to focus its resources on introducing itself to the world's tourists. Instead, they can appeal to the tourists who are already Korea-bound.
As we know, Japan is a well-established tourist destination and by easing access from Japan to Korea, it unlocks a passageway for tourists in Japan ― as well as Japanese citizens ― to come to Korea with little hassle. Not only would the headache and cost of air travel be eliminated, but the lure of riding on the largest and most modern undersea tunnel would certainly be enticing enough that many tourists would be more inclined to include a few days in Korea on their itinerary.
And with the arrival city in Korea being somewhere other than Seoul, Korea will have more opportunities to establish itself as a multifaceted tourist destination. Cities like Busan and Daegu will experience booms, along with smaller ``unknown" cities all around the peninsula.
A properly managed influx of tourists is certain to have long-lasting effects on the nation's image. This is one of the best ways Korea could maximize its exposure. By having a steady flow of tourists from around the world, Korea will have the opportunity to impress upon them just how modern, exciting and even business-friendly Korea has become.
Gone will be the days when Korea must make its case as a vacation spot to the rest of the world. All corners of the nation will become lively destinations as more people discover all that Korea has to offer. The government will finally start spreading its resources more evenly among its cities. Universities will open or move campuses, business would relocate their headquarters and Korea would become a country with more than one city.
The possibilities are endless and the advantages that Korea will receive from such a project would create positive ripples that none of us can fully predict. The battle ahead is still long and there will be a lot of political mudslinging and banter along the way, but I sincerely believe that Korea and Japan will come to an agreement, and that that will be a victory for this nation.
The writer has been teaching business English and current events for three years in southern Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.