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When President Obama looks West, part of the new U.S. foreign policy pivot, will he still see a rising South Korea?

Fourteen months ago, a scant few blocks from where I’m staying in this swank district of Seoul— my driver from the airport called it “Beverly Hills”—an unusually severe downpour turned parts of this seciton of the city  into brackish bayou. The Hankang River was safely within its banks; a lack of sewer capacity sent the runoff through the Gangnam neighborhood’s streets.

Such sudden demonstrations of extreme weather have impressed engineers at this week’s conference in Seoul of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers with the idea that the warming earth's atmosphere has initiated an era of immoderate climatic behavior.

Jae-Wan Lee, chief executive of South Korea’s Sekwang Engineering Consultants Co. and head of the host country’s FIDIC chapter, has an especially difficult road to negotiate.

Speaking in an interview  in the COEX Center, where the FIDIC conference is being held, Lee explained that his company, a maritime engineer specializing in breakwaters  and harbors, sees billions of Korean won worth of work needed  in South Korea preparing the country’s coasts for sea-level rise.

Nearly surrounded by the sea, South Korea is often punished by cyclones and floods. Just last month dozens died in a typhoon.

But as the economic and scientific planets align for sustainable infrastructure construction, the political currents have changed course. Outgoing President Lee Myung-Bak, a former chairman of Hyundai who is now on the political defensive, has backed away with South Korean lawmakers from infrastructure spending in favor of social welfare programs, Lee says.

And that has cut the country’s infrastructure spending by 10% each of the past two years.

“So we’re facing a slow-down,” says Lee.

South Korea's national government budget deficit remains small compared to the U.S. and Japan.

The pity is that the turn away from infrastructure spending comes at a time when “sea-level change and new and updated design criteria is very good for engineers,” says Lee.

Noting the irony, Lee says that "sea-level change and typhoons are bad for human life and suffering but good for engineers.”

That's because, Lee makes clear, engineers are charged by society with protecting people and property from naural hazards. 

The answer for Gangnam could be a subgrade reservoir.

Whether the resources can be found for it remains unclear. What is clear is that politicians are confused, says Lee, Infrastructure spending is a form of social welfare.

You could say that infrastructure spending has helped make South Korea what it is, along with the hard work of its citizens. A country in the first ranks of world industrial powers.

Rebuilt following the 1950-1953 war that destroyed much of South and North Korea, Seoul is often called the world’s most wired city. I’m not sure if that refers to the wi-fi or the coffee (decaf is unknown here).

With only 50 million people but ranked near the top in several measures of industrial output and in GDP, South Korea is hardly a paradise. The work ethic is Spartan and not everyone throughout the lower Korean peninsula, nor in Seoul, gets rich. Big corporations have undue influence, as in the U.S.

Considering what has been accomplished here, along with increasing democratization and free speech, Korea is more of a miracle than China or Japan.

What could be changing, says Lee, is tthat now public sentiment sometimes holds that infrastructure is destroying nature rather than contributing to public welfare. So politicians devote more funds to social welfare programs.

The decline in infrastructure spending comes just when sustainable infrastructure would help the most in keeping S. Korea on the rise and better prepared for extreme weather. Although Lee doesn’t say it, I wonder if the turn away from infrastructure could one day be linked to the end of S. Korea's ascendence on the world stage.

Jae-Wan Lee, CEO, Sekwang Engineering Consultants Co.

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