Seoul / Lee Myung Bak: The man behind Cheonggyecheon

Politics have played a rather dominant role in the re-construction of Cheonggyecheon.  Without the strong leadership of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the project would be interfered with multiple stakeholders (i.e. cooperates, peddlers, traffic sectors etc.), and would definitely suffer from a long span of implementation time and high administrative cost.

In 2003, there was a social unrest broke out in Buan, concerning about the implementation of a new nuclear power station in that area.  The building of radioactive facility in the area have raised issue of environmental protection and the legitimacy of governance in South Korea.  Due to a predicted saturation of radioactive waste storage, there was an imminent need of expanding the radioactive site for future storage use.  As the precedent president of Korea has been regarded as a figure that is not trustworthy, the governance was always not smooth and efficient.  Therefore the implementation of such expansion had received a strong opposition from the local residents and NGOs.


The mastermind behind Cheonggyecheon, Lee Myung Bak, has made use of such social turmoil and become a significant political figure at that time.  The political culture before focused a lot on economic growth as the developing country is trying hard to catch up with neighboring leading powers like Japan and China.  Thus led the governing parties result-oriented.  Environmental projects like Cheonggyecheon will never come true because the economic outcome is not guaranteed meanwhile given that the revitalization cost is promisingly high.  He sees the problem that the democratic government cannot gain trust from its people anymore.  Therefore he made use of his grassroots background to gain empathy from the people who share similar struggles.  In the midst of all the trust issues and varying future, a strong aspiration is the only way to lead the society to a revolution.  In the way of making Seoul a metropolis, Lee Myung Bak has to be determined to vastly transform the urban fabric in order to solve rooted problems like urban congestion and pollution.

He proposed a strong leadership in governing the city of Seoul.  The political culture of doing more than required (also aspiring for changes) in his office is one significant change among the bureaucrats.  His move in ‘bulldozing’ the project, as mentioned by the media, has marked the milestone of regaining trust from the people.  For the first time since the last president there is a political promise that is fulfilled, and the people has experienced a better environment than before, without much sacrifice of commercial benefits, but actually an increased in the commercial value of the surrounding area.  (I.e. the land price is increased by 30-50% within 50 meters boundary of the project, double to that of the average rise in the whole nation)  During 2002-2003, the project has also brought an increase in number of businesses by 3.5% in Cheonggyecheon area and a 0.8% increase in number of working people.

To sum up, the play of politics has made the government more motivated to carry out ambitious change.  The determination shown by the leadership also gained confidence from the people, allowing a more efficient governance.  The project was finished so quickly and smoothly, especially when compared to similar projects like big dig and Netherland canals.  The legal hurdles and lack of democracy have hindered the pace of similar developments.  This kind of ‘Seoul speed’ got introduced mainly in favor of the key turning point in the political culture at that time.



Hefu, L. (2008). Midnight 5am: The Biblography of Lee Myung Bak. Taiyuan: Shanxi Commune Publish.

Rudiger Frank, James E. Hoare, Patrick Kollner, Susan Pares. (2009). Scapegoat, Beggar and President for the Economy: The Image of Lee Myung Bak as Seen through Political Cartoons. In Korea 2009. Politics, Economy and Society (pp. 85-112). Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.

Rudiger Frank, James E. Hoare, Patrick Kollner, Susan Pares. (2008). Korea 2008. Politics, Economy and Society (pp. 85-112). Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.

Hong, Y., & Yan, Y. (2008). Deconstructing of Lee, Myung-Bak’s methology. Taibei: The Open Information Ltd.

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