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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Against the Flow

Kim Chan-ju

Nov. 17, 2015

Cheonggye Stream, which flows through the center of Seoul, is a popular place to relax. Its clean water is home to many birds and fish. But just 12 years ago, it was an eyesore. Its polluted, filthy water was more of a trickle than a flow. Now, 10 years after it was completed, it's an internationally recognized regeneration project.

The Cheonngye is a 5.8km stream which runs through downtown Seoul. Pretty lanterns are displayed to welcome visitors to this famous waterway.

The Seoul Lantern Festival began in 2009. During the festival, thousands of lanterns, each with a unique design and story, are lit up along the Cheonggye Stream. The carnival combines traditional and modern features.

A woman who is visiting says she is delighted to be there and is enjoying herself very much at the festival.

The stream has always been a landmark for residents of Seoul. These days, people come here to relax. More than 50,000 people visit the area daily.

During the country's rapid economic growth, the stream became heavily contaminated. But following restoration work, species that once thrived there have come back. The price of land around the stream has risen twofold in the past decade.

The cleanup project is known worldwide. But 10 years after renovation work was finished, not everyone here is happy.

In Korean, Cheonngyecheon means a clean, blue stream. A popular spot for citizens to relax, it is home to 20 kinds of fish and 37 kinds of birds.

But the stream has a checkered history, intertwined with the lives of ordinary people for hundreds of years.

The Gwangtonggyo Bridge was built across the stream in the early 15th century, becoming one of the most important and busiest bridges in Seoul.

Historically, the stream was a place of cleansing. Women would wash their clothes, their children, and their hair.

After the Korean War broke out, people who lost their homes began living on its banks. Waste water and other pollutants gradually contaminated the stream, threatening public hygiene.

By 1950, concrete covered the waterway, and an elevated highway stretched overhead. As the years passed, the safety concerns mounted, and residents demanded action.

Lee Myung-bak, the Seoul Mayor who later became President, pledged in 2003 to revive Cheonggye Stream.

The restoration project he initiated aimed to improve the downtown environment while also revitalizing the economy.

Two years later, the work was complete. A 5.8-km waterway ran under open skies and fast became a symbol of the city.

Bringing the Cheonggye stream back to life cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But that wasn't the only price paid. About 6,000 vendors who plied their trade along the stream were forced to make way for construction crews.

Now some of those vendors can be found in a commercial complex built by the city. It is 18 kilometers from the stream. Vendors say business is slow. Many are struggling to pay the maintenance fee and bank loans.

"Vendors are in a crisis. We might lose control of our property," one of the merchants says. "City officials should admit their plan was a mistake, and come up with a solution."

Managing the stream is a challenge, too. Every day, 120,000 tons of water has to be diverted from the Han River to the Cheonggye using electric pumps. That costs about $6.5 million per year.

Hwang Eui-suk, Seoul Metropolitan Government Stream Management Division Deputy Director, says, "We plan to save on electricity costs by scaling back operations. We will reduce the amount of water to a third."

The history of Cheonggye Stream parallels South Korea's development. Now, city officials are under pressure to take action again -- and a key waterway is set for another change of course.


Kim Chan-ju speaks with Newsroom Tokyo Anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya.

Beppu: It seems the government needs to juggle a lot of priorities in order to please everyone.

Chang-ju: Exactly. As we saw in the video, people whose lives have been hurt by redevelopment or restoration projects are often victims of political battles or profiteering by conglomerates. Large-scale redevelopment projects may have benefited the majority of Seoulites, but some people suffered permanent damage to their businesses, or lost their homes -- and this wasn't limited to the case of Cheonggye Stream. South Korea's rapid economic development is known around the world, but the speedy growth brought social problems with it.

Earlier this year, the South Korean government announced a billion-dollar redevelopment program for one of Seoul's last remaining slums-- Guryong Village in the Gangnam district. The announcement sparked controversy, as it has yet to be decided what will happen to the people living in the slums. It remains to be seen how the government will tackle these issues and compensate victims. So, the government was able to push ahead with the Cheonggye Stream project while the economy was strong. Now economic growth has slowed, many citizens want the government to ease the burden on those who are paying an unexpectedly high price.