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(News Focus) River restoration project gains some traction, but not enough
By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, Aug. 5 (Yonhap) -- A river refurbishment plan, one of President Lee Myung-bak's main projects, appeared to gain traction after some of opposing governors showed flexibility this week, but their terms and conditions suggest it could be derailed again.

   The three governors elected on the main opposition Democratic Party (DP)'s ticket in the June 2 local elections have been in a standoff with the central government over the controversial project, expressing doubts about its efficacy and saying they will review its usefulness.

   The Lee Myung-bak government has claimed the 22 trillion won (US$18.2 billion) project will ensure a stable supply of clean water, help prevent floods and create new jobs, but opposition parties, joined by environmentalists and some religious groups, argue that it will cause disaster to the ecosystem.

   Escalating tensions reached a new height late last month when the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs sent official requests to the three leaders, asking them to clarify once and for all whether they plan to proceed with the project or want to give up their business rights.

   According to the land ministry on Wednesday, Lee Si-jong and Ahn Hee-jung, governors of South and North Chungcheong, responded that they will go ahead with the dredging of the rivers, a meaningful turnaround from their earlier stances.

   Kim Doo-kwan, governor of South Gyeongsang Province, has yet to respond but asked the ministry to give him more time to consider, the ministry said.

   Ministry officials said they understand the answers by the Chungcheong governors as a withdrawal of their earlier opposition.

   The Lee administration is hoping that their flexibility will influence opponents of the project, including Gov. Kim. The project's key process of dredging, damming and restoring the country's four major rivers -- the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan -- requires the cooperation of local governments.

   The DP, which has strongly opposed the project, also toned down its actions, announcing an alternative to the government plan on Wednesday.

   "We are not fundamentally against the river project but are seeking to adjust it," Park Jie-won, head of the party's interim leadership, said in a news conference.

   "Along with the adjustment of the speed and duration of the project, we're asking the government to divert part of the budget allocated for the project to welfare, education and programs to improve the lives of ordinary people," he said.

   The turnaround, however, may only be superficial.

   The two governors who have responded emphasized that their flexibility was conditional.

   Lee Si-jong immediately denied some news reports that he expressed his full support to the river project. "I never did," Lee said in an interview with a local daily. "I still oppose dredging the rivers and building large dams for an inland waterway project," he was quoted as saying. "I said that I will push ahead with the project under way in North Chungcheong Province for our residents since a large part of it is embankment work aimed to prevent floods and drought."

   Ahn also said in his response that his government will "suggest a counterplan if it finds any problem with the existing plan in the course of implementing it."

   Park of the DP took a step back as well.

   "Nothing has changed from the DP's consistent position," he said at a party policy meeting on Thursday. He accused the land ministry of misconstruing the two governors' responses, portraying their "constructive opinions" as their "consent" to the project.

   Unless they have given surefire approval, the governors can technically reverse their position at any time if they find "problems" with the ongoing project. They have said they will undertake a full study of the potential influence of the project on water quality, the ecosystem and environmental pollution, all areas in which experts have fiercely disagreed.

   More delay would complicate the matter for the Lee administration, which is halfway through its five-year term.