(159) When bridges fall
When bridges fall, the loss is more than physical. When the ``Bridge of National Defense” collapses, you feel a sense of shame and doom. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that the nation’s mass media let out warning cries in unison last Saturday, the 61st anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War that devastated the peninsula for three years until a truce that continues through today.
The public reacted to the bridge’s destruction, though partial, rather emotionally probably because it was one of the most conspicuous victims of modern Korean history. It was built as a railroad bridge named ``Waegwan Cheolgyo” across the Nakdong River in 1905 by the Japanese who were preparing to make inroads into continental China via Korea. Four years after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, they built a new, two-way railroad bridge at the upper stream, leaving Waegwan Cheolgyo solely to pedestrians.
During the Korean War, the bridge emerged as one of the most important structures that could determine the outcome of the war. To prevent North Korean troops from using the bridge as a way of advancing south of the Nakdong, the U.N. forces bombed it on Aug. 3, 1950. After the war ceased as a result of an armistice in 1953, the bridge was restored for pedestrian use. In 1993, it went through an overhaul and was designated as a cultural property with the honorable name of the “Bridge of National Defense.”
When parts of this bridge of eventful life collapsed, criticism was directed at the government-pushed ``Four-river Restoration Project” for which the river bottom had been dredged up. The progressive Hankyoreh Shinmun pointed out that dredging was in full swing at the time of the collapse of the second pier of the bridge.
``If the riverbed is excavated to a significant depth around a pier, the base of the pier is exposed and begins to erode by the flowing water. Because of this, dredging around the area of the bridge was limited to a depth of 4 meters (13.1 feet), but this was not strictly observed,” the paper reported, quoting the head of the Daegu Construction and Mechanical Workers’ Branch of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.
Daewoo E&C (Engineering and Construction) and the Busan Office of the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs (MLTM) immediately stated after the mishap that protective work had been done for the bridge in February and early last month. Soon, it was confirmed that Daewoo shored up some piers in the middle of the river after dredging around them, but the collapsed pier was excluded from such efforts for economic reasons.
To the public’s dismay, there are several other bridges which stand in weakened riverbeds as Waegwan Cheolgyo. Protective measures should be taken for such bridges before dredging, but such efforts are usually made after dredging or not made at all for the lack of time, civil engineering experts say.
They say that Saturday’s collapse is a good case proving ``haste makes waste.” The government has been carrying out the “Four-river Restoration Project” in a rush while the nation is still divided widely about the map-changing, multi-billion-dollar plan. Government authorities have been and are all out in publicizing the project’s merits yet they fail to offer the most fundamental information. The MLTM’s website doesn’t even say when the project was started nor does it provide a related budget or timetable. It just presents a diagram showing what percentage of the planned work has been completed.
The total cost is estimated to be around 42 trillion won (approximately $40 billion); the government announced in mid-April that it would spend another 20 trillion won to refurbish streams that flow to the four major rivers ― Han, Geum, Nakdong and Yeongsan ― in addition to the 22 trillion won already earmarked for the project.
The government seems to be bent on ``restoring” the rivers before next year’s elections ― April for lawmakers and December for the President. While the political motivation is understandable, the casualty toll may be too great to benefit the government and its party. At least 10 workers lost their lives as of April while working on tight schedules at various sites along the four rivers. Ruling party’s Rep. Ahn Hong-joon reported in April that overtime labor was going on at 152 of the 154 construction sites.
Other victims of haste include rivers and streams that have lost their natural beauty and inhabitants and neighbors, and valuable cultural properties like Waegwan Cheolgyo. On Monday, Hwang Pyong-u, director of the Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute, filed legal complaints with the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office against MLTM Minister Kwon Do-youp, National River Restoration Office Director Shim Myung-pil, the MLTM Busan office chief, and the Daewoo site foreman, for causing the collapse of the cultural property by failing to take proper protective measures.
Governing party politicians may disregard Hwang’s move as an insignificant happening but who knows what his flint will hit.