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Through mountains and over the sea; K-ROADS

The motorways in South Korea have developed the same way as its economy. A courageous first step was taken in the 1960s, the seed of a miracle sprouted in 1970, the growth accelerated in the 1980s, a solid expansion was achieved in the 1990s, and a well-developed network spreading in all directions has been completed in the 2000s. By 2020, a national circular road network with seven horizontal and nine vertical trunks will be completed. This dense grid of roads with a combined length of 6,200 kilometers will make it possible to access an expressway from any part of the country in half an hour, giving motorists even greater ease of travel. Korean roads constructed through mountains and over seas and rivers demonstrate Koreans’ hopes and growth as well as their desire to connect with one another.

Roads for Green Land and Green Lifestyle

Most of Korea’s terrain consists of mountains, and the country faces the sea and numerous islands and islets in the west, south, and east. Thus, paving a long-distance road often involves drilling through hills and mountains and constructing bridges over water. Since the construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway in the 1970s, many roads have been constructed to connect to every corner of the country in all directions, like the arteries, veins, capillaries of a human body.

 (photo courtesy of KOCIS)Most of Korea’s terrain consists of mountains, and the country faces the sea and numerous islands and islets in the west, south, and east (photo courtesy of KOCIS).

Traditionally the geography of Korea is compared to sheep’s intestines, since most of its terrain is mountainous and scattered with countless winding mountain paths and numerous rivers and streams. Due to these geographical traits, it took a lot of time to travel from one place to another compared to the relative small size of the country. Today, however, controlled-access national highways (expressways), general national highways (national roads), and the local roads of individual metropolitan cities, provinces, cities, and counties run throughout the country like the arteries, veins, and capillaries of the human body.

Ms. Baek Myeon-hui, who was born in the middle of the country in the town of Mungyeong and now lives in Seoul, frequently returns to her hometown, a trip which she couldn’t have even imagined years ago. Although the beeline distance between the two cities is not that great, it used to take at least four hours to go from Seoul to Mungyeong mainly due to Mungyeong Saejae, a traditionally infamous obstacle for travelers.

From of old, Mungyeong Saejae is a rugged hill and the first gateway from the Yeongnam region (southeastern region of Korea) toward Seoul. During the Joseon period (1392-1910), applicants for the national civil service examination from the Yeongnam region had to cross the hill to go to Seoul, a trip that took at least ten days. There are multiples theories about the name of Mungyeong Saejae, one of which tells us that the jae (lit. hill) is so rugged that even a sae (lit. bird) needs to rest while flying over the hill.

Even in more modern times, Mungyeong wasn’t very accessible. However, the construction of the Mungyeong Saejae Tunnel as part of the Jungbu Naeryuk Expressway in 2004 helped cut the travel time between Seoul and Mungyeong in half. Since then more sections have been added to the Jungbu Naeryuk Expressway, scheduled to be completed by the end of this year to run between Yangpyeong near Seoul and Changwon on the south coast of the Korean Peninsula.


On July 7, 1970, construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway was completed, two years and five months after breaking ground. The 428-kilometerlong expressway shortened the travel time between Seoul and Busan from over 15 hours to five and a half. The benefits of the expressway soon became the most evident in logistics. Back then, the South Korean economy was rapidly bulging thanks to the government’s first five-year plan for economic development (1962-1966), but the country’s transportation infrastructure was poor, resulting in a chronic logistics issue. The construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway cleared that obstacle, accelerating the economic growth of Korea. Real GDP grew at an annual pace of over ten percent during the 1970s.

Following the construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway, the Honam, Namhae, Yeongdong, and Guma expressways were all constructed in the 1970s; the 88 Olympic Expressway and Jungbu Expressway were completed in the 1980s; and the Pangyo-Guri, Singal- Ansan, Seohaean, Jungang, and Seoul Outer Ring expressways all had their groundbreakings in the 1990s.

 (photo courtesy of KOCIS)The Donghaean Expressway stretched out alongside the coastline (photo courtesy of KOCIS).

According to the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs and the Korea Expressway Corporation, by 2020 there will be seven trunk lines going in a north-south direction and nine trunk lines going in an eastwest direction as well as branch roads, all with a combined length of 6,200 kilometers that will cover the country.


When the dense road network is completed, Sejong Special Self- Governing City will be at the heart of the network and will also be accessible from any major city in Korea within two hours. Sejong City itself, located in the center of the Korean Peninsula, is a planned city that will be home to national government ministries and other agencies. The most important roads that form the road network are the Gyeongbu, Honam, Cheonan- Nonsan, and Daejeon-Dangjin expressways, as well as the road that connects Sejong City to Osong Station where the Gyeongbu KTX Line stops. This network will be both radial and circular in order to pursue co-growth with nearby cities such as Daejeon, Cheongju, and Gongju.

The roads of Korea not only stretch within the Korean Peninsula, but also extend off of the coastlines to Korea’s numerous islands and islets, especially off the meandering southern coast where many islands are scattered. One of the most representative bridges is the Aphae Bridge, which connects Mokpo and the island of Aphaedo, both in the southern province of Jeollanamdo. Opened in 2008, it is a four-lane bridge of a combined length of 3,563 meters which includes the section over water (1,420 meters), over land (420 meters), and the connecting section in between the two (1,720 meters). With the completion of the bridge, residents not only of Aphaedo but also of nearby islands can now travel to Mokpo much more conveniently.

There are 40 bridges that connect islands to the mainland including the Geogeum Bridge, Gogeum Bridge, and Yi Sun-sin Bridge (a suspension bridge that was opened in conjunction with the opening of the Yeosu Expo). Twenty-seven more bridges are under construction including the Saecheonnyeon Bridge, which will connect the islands of Amtaedo and Aphaedo, and plans are underway for the construction of 36 additional bridges. By 2020, it will be possible to travel to all major islands off the southern coast by car.


Since Korea has numerous mountains and islands, tunnels and bridges need to be built in most cases when roads are constructed. That’s why Korea is a top-rated country when it comes to tunneldrilling technology and bridge construction. The country’s civil engineering market is no longer about cheap labor. Embracing information technology and environmental technology, Korean civil engineers are now able to connect tunnels 50 meters below sea level within a margin of error of two centimeters and cut a new underground tunnel only 15 centimeters below a subway tunnel.

The opening of the Yi Sun-sin Bridge earlier this year started a new chapter in the history of super long-span bridges. A super long-span bridge usually connects an island to land or to another island, and the distance between two bridge piers is at least 1,000 meters. Typically, the long bridge deck is connected over the sea with steel cables to endure strong winds and waves, which requires stateof- the-art civil engineering technology. The Yi Sun-sin Bridge is a cablestayed suspension bridge with a 1,545-meter span between the piers. That’s a longer pier span than that of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Being the world’s fourth largest suspension bridge, the Yi Sun-sin Bridge was constructed 100 percent by Daelim Industrial, a Korean company. This made Korea the world’s sixth country that was able to build a suspension bridge entirely on its own.

 (photo courtesy of KOCIS)Being the world’s fourth largest suspension bridge, the Yi Sun-sin Bridge was constructed 100 percent by Daelim Industrial, a Korean company (photo courtesy of KOCIS).

The construction of the Geoga Bridge, which connects Busan and the island of Geojedo, helped push Korea’s underwater tunnel technology to the next level. The project involved building two cablestayed bridges (3.5 kilometers) and laying an immersed tube tunnel under the sea (3.7 kilometers), which was the most challenging part of the entire construction project. In order to construct the immersed tunnel, engineers had to connect 18 concrete tubes 50 meters below sea level between the islands of Gadeokdo and Jungjukdo. Daewoo E&C, another Korean company, developed precise position-control equipment called an external positioning system (EPS) The Donghaean Expressway stretched out alongside the coastline. and used other cutting-edge civil engineering techniques combined with information technology in order to link the concrete tubes within a margin of error of only two centimeters under the sea. The 45,000-ton tubes were first constructed in drydock.

The construction of the Seoul- Chuncheon Expressway, which opened in 2009, was a grand project involving laying roads, building 103 bridges, drilling 41 tunnels, and constructing nine interchanges, nine offices, and two rest areas. For the construction of the expressway, a range of ecofriendly civil engineering techniques were used. For example, Hyundai Development Company, the Korean company that directed the entire construction process, applied a soilnailing technique from the design stage. Soil nailing helps stabilize unstable natural soil slopes and minimizes the environmental impact of construction.

Civil engineering of Korea crosses borders

South Korea’s unrivaled civil engineering technology has proven its value at home and abroad. Korea started exporting its civil engineering technology in the 1960s and has since seen robust growth. The cumulative price of the construction projects Korean companies have won overseas so far has reached USD 500 billion as of June 2012. Korea’s share in the global market has also grown, jumping from 1.9 percent in 2003 (the world’s 12th) to 4.8 percent in 2010 (the world’s seventh). Today, Korea is a global power in the civil engineering market both in name and substance.

Samsung C&T was the primary contractor for Burj Khalifa (828 meters, 160 stories) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which is the tallest building in the world. Dong Ah Consortium and Korex were the respective primary contractors for the first and second phases of the Great Manmade River (GMR) project in Libya, which is the world’s largest single construction project. Daelim Industrial signed a contract for the development of Iran’s South Pars gas field in December 2010, which is still under way. Besides such grand projects, Korea has also demonstrated superb expertise in the construction of such infrastructure as roads and bridges in many parts of the world.

The first Korean construction firm to venture overseas was Hyundai Engineering and Construction. In 1966, the company developed Korean-style heavy equipment including rollers and compressors and successfully constructed an expressway in Thailand using the equipment. The project didn’t earn the company much money, but it did give it a precious opportunity to acquire advanced technology. Later in 1982-1985, Hyundai E&C constructed the 7,958-meter-long Penang Bridge in Malaysia. The longest in Asia, the bridge applied a new technique using cables, winning the American Consulting Engineers Council Grand Award in 1986.

SsangYong Engineering and Construction is also faring well overseas. The Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore made the company’s name known worldwide. SsangYong E&C is currently engaged in another civil engineering project in Singapore: segment 482 of the fivekilometer Marina Coastal Expressway construction project. The expressway involves a 3.5-kilometer underground tunnel and partly runs through segments of reclaimed flimsy land and below the seabed. Working on Segment 482 is especially challenging and requires advanced technology. Being a design-build project where a single contractor provides both the design and construction services, the contract for Segment 482 is worth USD 721 million (as of November 2011).

In addition to the private sector, the Korean government has also been successful in pursuing civil engineering projects overseas. The Korea Expressway Corporation, Seoul Metropolitan Government, Pyunghwa Engineering Consultants, and Saman Corporation formed a consortium to win a project management consulting (PMC) project from the Brunei Economic Development Board in August this year. It is the first foreign government-funded project the Korea Expressway Corporation has ever won. The consortium will provide the design, construction, and management services for the construction of roads, bridges, and auxiliary facilities to develop Muara Besar Island.

 (photo courtesy of KOCIS)The road along the meandering lakeshore of the Okjeongho is full of constantly changing scenery (photo courtesy of KOCIS).

Since Korea’s recent construction of a super long-span bridge has drawn the world’s attention, relevant government agencies as well as construction companies are getting busier. If Korea’s capabilities to pioneer new markets and manage and maintain infrastructure grow even further, Koreans will soon be paving 21st-century silk roads across the globe.

Roads leading to the future

Based on its advanced civil engineering technology, Korea’s transportation system is becoming even more convenient and valuable for users. The country already launched efforts to build a safer and more eco-friendly transportation environment with a focus on the users. One such attempt is a plan to develop a next-generation expressway dubbed a “smart highway.” Combining cutting-edge information and communications technology with advanced automobile and road construction technology, the country has been attempting to address the problems of today’s expressways and build highly functional smart roads to befit future society. Current expressways are not free from traffic jams, accidents, and natural disasters. Moreover, expressways are not fully capitalizing on information technology, either. Once realized, smart highways will enable real-time exchange of traffic information to alleviate traffic jams and thereby ensure a speed of at least 160 km/h. By 2016, Koreans will be able to run on eco-friendly and smart expressways more conveniently, safely, and speedily.

In order to make that dream come true, it’s going to be necessary to combine a range of new technologies and adapt them to real situations. When it comes to a road, construction isn’t the end of the story. The cost of maintenance is also a huge amount of money. Presently, the annual budget to maintain the country’s expressways stands at about KRW 100 billion, so the country is desperate to develop new technologies to lengthen the lifespan of roads and reduce the cost of maintenance. Fortunately, a new technology has recently come out to use both the strengths of asphalt and concrete. For the surface layer of the road, asphalt is applied, while for the lower layer, concrete is used to effectively spread the weight of the cars running on the road. This technology is expected to lengthen the lifespan of pavement by more than 20 percent. Another new technology uses recycled particles of waste plastic. More specifically, fibers extracted from recycled particles of waste plastic are used to mesh with the asphalt aggregates to make the road less prone to forming cracks. Signing contracts to maintain a 100-kilometer road and a 50-kilometer road respectively in China and Russia with this new technology is within sight.

Korea also focuses on the development of technology to improve communication and safety. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs selects proven new transportation technologies, applies them to actual roads and automobiles, and protects them for a certain period of time. In 2009, the ministry selected a fourth new transportation technology, an open roadside guardrail that secures wider views for drivers and is stronger than existing W-beam guardrails.

These guardrails are installed along the last lane of a road and help the driver to better see the part of the road that’s around the corner, thereby preventing collisions or alleviating the shock from a collision. The application of the technology on accident-prone sections of national highways has made driving safer and reduced car accidents and related costs.

Eco-friendly technology is also applied to solar LED traffic signs, which emit light by themselves and improve the driving environment. These signs use solar energy, so they can also be used where a steady power supply isn’t available. They are also easier for drivers to read at night or when it rains than the conventional retroreflective traffic signs, which return light in the direction from which it comes.

The rest areas along expressways where travelers can take a break from a long ride are changing, too. These days, they come with a variety of amenities such as gaming facilities and shops selling goods for outdoor activities or local specialties. There are also free shower, laundry, and changing rooms for truck drivers, who tend to be exhausted from long drives. In addition to such functionality, more and more rest areas in Korea offer aesthetic value with their structures as they blend with the surrounding environment.

Technology for roads is powerful. It not only ensures safer and more convenient travel but also creates changes in lifestyle, facilitates economic growth, and helps people connect better. Korea has led and will continue to lead the way in road technology.

 (photo courtesy of KOCIS)Coastal Route on National Road 77 (photo courtesy of KOCIS)

Scenic roads of Korea

The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs has selected roads that command beautiful scenery and also have historic and cultural value. The best of them are as follows:

Coastal Route on National Road 7
There is a beautiful section on National Road 7 that runs along the coastline and catches the traveler’s eyes and heart. At first it runs straight, then it snakes all along the coastline of the city of Samcheok, stretching 24.3 kilometers between the Wolcheon and Gungchon regions of Samcheok.

A Riverside Route on Local Road 391
The 11.9-kilometer-long section between Jaraseom Island and Cheongpyeongho Lake in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi-do is a breathtaking driving course. Being a part of Local Road 391, the route passes the islands of Jaraseom and Namiseom, and runs along the shore of Cheongpyeongho. In spring, cherry blossoms adorn the route; in summer, water leisure activities beckon drivers; in autumn, leaves turn color amid jazz music; and in winter, ice fishing and the snowy landscapes attract anglers and travelers.

Lakeside Route on Local Road 749
The lake of Okjeongho in Imsil, Jeollabuk-do, is famous for its wet fog in spring and autumn. While driving on Local Road 749, it’s a good idea to pull your car up on the shoulder of the road where you can get a commanding and serene view of the lake. The remaining path along the meandering lakeshore of the Okjeongho is full of constantly changing scenery.

Coastal Route on National Road 77
The five-kilometer-long section on National Road 77 between Baeksu and Daesin in Jeollanam-do is especially beautiful during the spring and summer, as both sides of the route stretching along sea cliffs become a sea of pink sweetbriers.

*Article from Korea Magazine (September 2012)


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