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(2nd LD) S. Korean lawmakers heap criticism on government's reversal in airstrip row

All Headlines 16:59 January 12, 2009

(ATTN: RECASTS lead, para 3 to specify collision prevention measure, RESTRUCTURES to show distance earlier; TRIMS)
By Sam Kim

SEOUL, Jan. 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's ruling lawmakers joined opposition rivals Monday in slamming the government's recent move to lift its 14-year-old ban on the construction of a major skyscraper in the proximity of a key military airstrip south of Seoul.

South Korea decided last week to consider slightly readjusting the double-runway airfield to allow one of the country's biggest companies, Lotte Group, to build a 555-meter-tall tower within its operational vicinity.

The decision to turn one of the runways by three degrees to prevent collisions came as President Lee Myung-bak has called for a "business-friendly" government since taking office early last year.

Lawmakers of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) and the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) said Monday the move undermines national security while failing to address the safety of dignitaries using the airfield.

"This is a blow to our national security from within the government," DP legislator Seo Jong-pyo said at a parliamentary hearing. The former four-star general added the move sets a bad precedent because it gives the impression that a company is buying out the interests of the military.

The airfield in the city of Seongnam sits less than 6 kilometers south of the site where Lotte has pushed to build the tower that would be annexed to its popular Lotte World theme park.

It has been integral to South Korea's capital defense, according to experts, and presidents and high-level foreign guests have used it to avoid disrupting operations at commercial airports.

Slamming the defense minister for not balking at the decision, GNP lawmaker Yoo Seong-min said pilots would still have difficulty in landing or lifting off in bad weather or at nighttime, especially during wartime.

"We cannot rule out the possibility of an airplane slamming into the building," GNP lawmaker Suh Chung-won said, joining Yoo in the criticism.

Minister Lee Sang-hee said that the installation of high-tech radars financed by Lotte would guarantee safety, but the defense committee at the National Assembly said it was not enough.

"Money isn't the issue here," DP legislator Ahn Gyu-baek said, accusing the military of dropping its previous position to fall in line with the pro-business stance of the conservative government.

The previous Roh Moo-hyun administration ruled against Lotte in 2007, siding with the Air Force that complained of the potential safety hazard. But officials mulled a reversal last year as Lotte said it would entirely assume the costs involved in readjusting the airstrip.

On Sunday, a government source said the Air Force has proposed relocating the presidential airplane to a different airport due to safety concerns.

The Ministry of National Defense rebutted it, saying that the readjustment would guarantee safety if the measure is backed by cutting-edge equipment.

"What are you going to do about foreign airplanes that do not carry such equipment?" GNP member Yoo said, arguing no other country has ever reshaped a military airfield to accommodate a business interest.

Lotte Group, founded by a Korean businessman in Japan, is one of South Korea's largest family-run businesses, overseeing about 50 subsidiaries ranging from retail and finances to hotels and entertainment. Lotte World, which opened next to a shopping mall in 1989 in southeastern Seoul, is estimated to draw 5 million visitors each year.


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