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A pork-barrel airport

Feb 16,2019
President Moon Jae-in has renewed regional conflicts over the plan for a new gateway to the southern coast. During his visit to the city of Busan last week, Moon suggested bringing back a scrapped project to create a new international airport in southeastern region. The media reported that the Ministry of Interior and Safety has conducted a survey gauging the opinion in the southern region about the need for a new airport. The Blue House sat on the fence. It upheld the earlier decision to expand Busan’s existing Gimhae International Airport instead of building an entirely new one and at the same time admitted the prime minister’s office was looking into the idea.

The comment has rekindled the contest between southern and northern sections of Gyeongsang. Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don took Moon’s comment as a confirmation that the government will build a new airport on the Gadeok Island in the southern tip of Busan. The Daegu mayor and North Gyeongsang governor denied this. The bitter rivalry has been revived.

The multibillion-dollar project to build a new airport in the southeastern region has fueled regional divisions across the liberal and conservative governments over a decade. The administration under President Park Geun-hye in 2016 sought to end the affair by choosing to expand the existing Gimhae Airport instead of building a new one in one of the shortlisted locations — Gadeok Island and Miryang in South Gyeongsang — due to economic infeasibility. Little has changed over the last few years except that the local government heads are all from the ruling Democratic Party. Reviving the idea only raises suspicion that it is trying to increase its popularity before the general election next year.

Political judgments must stop influencing massive state infrastructure projects. The government has already raised eyebrows for endorsing a 24-trillion-won ($21-billion) state-subsidized construction project that was exempted from feasibility studies. It went far beyond the Lee Myung-bak government, which the liberal front vehemently criticized for spending massive tax funds on the four-rivers restoration project. The pretext of “balanced regional development” cannot explain resorting to pork-barrel projects. Many regional airports have become white elephants that hardly make money. Yet politicians promise to bring an airport in their constituencies in every election season. Out of 15 airports, only five — those in Incheon and Gimpo in the capital area, Gimhae in Busan, Jeju, and Daegu — eke out profit. The government included an airport in the Saemangeum reclaimed island along the southwestern coast in the fast-tracked projects that can be exempted with preliminary studies in budgeting. Yet Muan Airport, just an hour away, operates at 10 percent of its capacity.

Pork-barrel projects are tempting to governments battling worsening economies. They can make short-term jobs and economic recovery. But if tax funds are wasted on large construction projects that lack business prospects, the economy will only get worse.

JoongAng Sunday, Feb. 16, Page 30