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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Nov. 19)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:06 November 19, 2020

Politically-motivated plan
Stop changing airport project ahead of election

A state committee has virtually scrapped the plan to expand Gimhae International Airport in the nation's southeastern province. The panel, under the Prime Minister's Office, cited safety and environmental issues, coupled with a lack of communication between the transport ministry and the local government in the process of pushing for the project, in its report Tuesday.

"Substantial supplementation is needed for the new Gimhae airport plan regarding its safety, facility management, future demand and environment," committee head Kim Soo-sam said during a press briefing, wrapping up its survey over the past 11 months since December 2019. He pointed out the insufficient dialogue between the ministry and the Busan city government over the expansion, which would need the partial demolition of a nearby mountain.

Instead of expanding Gimhae airport, the government and Busan's municipal authorities appear poised to press ahead with their plan to construct a new international airport on Gadeok Island. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) has already decided to introduce a special bill for the construction of the new airport, earmarking 2 billion won ($18 million) for the project in next year's government budget.

President Moon Jae-in's administration has come under attack for pressing ahead with the island airport project in order to woo voters ahead of the by-election for Busan mayor slated for next April. The mayoral post has been vacant since Mayor Oh Keo-don resigned in April over allegations he sexually harassed his secretary. Given this, the DPK has been suffering a setback in the Busan area.

The ruling camp came under strong criticism for deciding to field candidates in Busan and Seoul, despite its earlier pledge not to do so. The DPK's regulations stipulate that if its members holding elected posts resign or are deprived of their posts because of their misdeeds, such as bribery and sexual crimes, the party should not field any candidates in the resultant by-elections. Former Seoul Mayor Park Won-sook killed himself in July amid allegations of sexual harassment of his secretary.

The Gimhae airport expansion plan has been pushed since 2016 under the former President Park Geun-hye administration. At that time, the government contracted with an internationally renowned French company, ADPi, for a feasibility study of a new southeastern airport. It gave the highest marks for the plan to expand Gimhae airport, far exceeding the Gadeok Island plan. Regarding the construction cost, the ADPi survey found Gadeok would require 10 trillion won ($9 billion) compared to 4 trillion won for Gimhae. It also highly assessed Gimhae in terms of accessibility and environmental conservation as far ahead of Gadeok.

The seemingly hasty decision will likely reignite regional conflicts between Daegu-Gyeongbuk (North Gyeongsang Province) and Busan-Gyeongnam (South Gyeongsang Province). The Daegu city government vowed not to sit idly by and to stage an all-out struggle against the decision together with its citizens. What is deplorable is that the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) has remained lukewarm on the issue, apparently wary of a possible backlash from Busan if it opposes the island airport plan.

The committee's decision is worrisome in that it shows another case of "politicizing" major national projects. As key projects cost huge amounts of taxpayers' money, a lack of consistency ― putting political interests before economic feasibility ― will pose a greater burden on the people and shake the national foundation to its core.
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