Rivers Must Flow, Mudflats Must Be Bountiful

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byChoi Sung Kak
The Chased Bird


That’s your development.


“What’s with this talk of ocean cities?”

“I know, right? This is a form of expansionism too. The new powers that be are driveling on about us becoming a key country in Northeast Asia... It’s just the fantasy of a self-styled celebrated architect.”

“How does building an ocean city help in saving mudflats? They’ve no idea what they’re talking about. If they want to save mudflats they’ve no choice but to open the seawall. Isn’t saving life the only way to prevent the destruction of life?”

I didn’t find anything strange or awkward in hearing him speak of “life.” What would it be like if such words were to come out of my mouth? Would they smell of grilled saury or pork belly?

Behind their plan to plod around drawing a handcart this time was the intention to play out with their bodies the fiction of the ocean city theory that popped up as an alternative to the Saemangeum Seawall with the backing of certain men of repute.

“I can’t forget this story about Native Americans. One day, white people visited a Native American village. They told the natives they’d construct buildings in their village, lay tracks, and change the course of the river. The natives asked them, ‘What for?’ The whites answered, ‘To spread the gospel to you heathens and to help you experience a developed way of life.’ The natives asked them again, ‘What’s this thing you call development? That’s your development. Development for us is salmon teeming and jumping in the river, and water birds playing in peace. Go back to where you came from.’ When I read this story, my hairs stood on end. It touched me deeply.”

“…Yeah! Rivers teeming with salmon is development all right. By the way, tell me, is ‘develop’ an intransitive or transitive verb?”

“I don’t know.”

“It was an intransitive verb originally. But after Truman’s 1949 speech, people started using it as a transitive verb. Truman announced that America would help develop the uncivilized nations. Terms like “developing countries” and “undeveloped countries” were also coined around then.”

“I see.”

A chilly wind raged across the winter fields on the rim of Asan Bay. I could see the Seohaedaegyo Bridge in the distance; the grey sea was frozen over.

“I just thought of something else. There was this lady in India who was opposing the construction of a dam. I can’t remember her name.”

“It’s probably either Arundhati Roy or Vandana Shiva.”

“The people who wanted to build the dam asked her, ‘Why’re you against the dam? People will have much better lives once it is built.’ To that the woman answered, ‘Rivers must flow.’ I don’t know any words more touching than what the Native Americans and this lady said. It’s the same with the Saemangeum mudflats. Who asked them to destroy mudflats to create farmlands or build ocean cities?”

The young man who was walking with us spoke.

“Then what should we do about the Saemangeum Seawall?”

“Leave it alone, what else? It’ll crumble and collapse in time. All we’re asking is that they stop building the wall at once, and stop destroying what’s left of the mudflats. That’s it.”

“The seawall could become an educational site to remind us never to do something weird like this again. Visitors could pound away at it with hammers and move the pieces on handcarts to Haechangsan every day. No matter if it takes a decade, or even two. Even mountains can be moved, one stone at a time. I’m sure we’ll learn something in the end,” I said.

The “Hammer Theory” I proposed at the talks at Wonju later on also first came up that evening.

“Where’re you sleeping tonight?”

“The foreman of the village over there has agreed to let me use the village hall.”

Shin Hyung-rok pointed to the village beside the highway.

A bunch of nobodies trudged for nearly 250 kilometers, hand in hand with young kids, just to say, “The only way to save the mudflats is to leave what’s left of it alone right away,” but the seawall kept growing, heedless of the moans and shrieks of their bodies. When the current president of the new “participatory government” was the Minister of Oceans and Fisheries, he said “I’m emotionally against building the Saemangeum Seawall.” The Minister of Environment who allowed the destruction of Haechangsan Mountain has today transformed into the Minister of Construction and Transportation. Is there any hope left in this country? Is it okay if we keep talking about hope like a habit? In the deep of night, I’d ask myself such questions. 


Translated by Agnel Joseph