A Canal Runs through It: Seoul’s Ara Waterway at Two

Memo #293

By Daniel Kane – danielkane [at] gmail.com

The Han is the river of the South Korean capital of Seoul, and for most of that city’s history it served as highway to the Yellow Sea, some twenty kilometers to the west. To be sure, it still does, but since 1953 and the Korean War armistice a significant chunk of that route has formed part of the North-South demilitarized zone or Maritime Contested Zone, effectively eliminating the Han’s use as a transportation corridor to the sea. Until two years ago this month. In May 2012, the Arabaetgil Canal (or Ara Waterway) opened to much fanfare. With the inauguration of this 18-kilometre watercourse between Seoul and the Yellow Sea port of Incheon, the South Korean capital once more had a water outlet on the world. Though the canal may bring many dividends, not the least may be its role in the remaking of Seoul as a green city.

This vast engineering undertaking was the darling of former President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), who as the one-time chairman of Hyundai Construction had a fitting penchant for big projects and was someone who could “make the dirt fly.” The touted benefits of such a canal were many, including the improvement of adjacent land values, the relief of flooding in coastal Incheon, alleviation of the capital’s traffic congestion (the canal can handle cargo ships of up to 4000 tons), tourism, and the creation of new leisure and green spaces (this in turn part of Seoul’s realignment as a post-industrial urban space). At the time, many criticized the Lee administration for steamrolling the canal project through, including having the government-funded Korea Development Institute (KDI) undertake the cost-benefit analysis. Two years on, it’s natural to ask in what ways the canal changed the South Korean capital, and whether it’s lived up to its expectations.

Though there are rumblings that the canal remains underused considering the costs that went into its construction (US$2 billion), its economic impacts will take longer to gauge. What is clear is that the waterway and its network of riparian parks and trails has already become an integral part of a greening capital.

Daniel Kane received his MA in Korean History at the University of Hawaii, where he also served as the Korea Specialist Librarian. Full disclosure: he currently works in an editorial capacity at Pacific Affairs and the Asia Pacific Memo.

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The Ara Waterway under construction in 2009 (Credit: Daniel Kane).


  • Kim Sung-Yun et al. “Valuing the Functionality of Leisure in the Gyeongin Ara Waterway,” Gwangwanghak yeongu (Journal of Tourism Sciences) 37, no. 7 (Sept. 2013) (in Korean)


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