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Moon hints at reviving airport plan

Feb 16,2019
President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday hinted at reviving his predecessor’s shelved plan to build a new international airport in Korea’s southeast, which would replace the current project to expand Busan’s Gimhae International Airport.

“If there is a disagreement [among the local governments,] the issue should be reviewed and decided by the Prime Minister’s Office,” Moon said during a visit to Busan.

The remark quickly brought split reactions from the politicians of Gyeongsang region, as it was seen as a promise to reconsider the regional air transport blueprint decided by his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

During the previous Park Geun-hye administration, the government decided the current Gimhae International Airport would be expanded, and the Daegu Airport and its neighboring Air Force base would both be moved to a new location.

This plan replaced Park’s previous promise to build a new international airport in the southeastern region after a study conducted by a French company found it had low cost-effectiveness.

Gadeok Island off the city of Busan and Miryang in South Gyeongsang were the primary competitors for the airport plan.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport originally planned to finalize the Gimhae airport expansion plan during the first half of this year and complete the project by 2026.

But Moon’s remark Wednesday has thrown that process into doubt.

Moon said the current Gimhae airport expansion plan will be reconsidered if the five southeastern local governments - Busan, Ulsan, Daegu and South and North Gyeongsang - reach an agreement to scrap it. He then said that the Prime Minister’s Office, if no agreement is reached, will seriously review concerns about the Gimhae airport expansion plan.

Industry experts, however, are skeptical about Moon’s remarks.

“We wonder if the survey team will be more professional and capable than the French company that conducted the survey in 2016,” said an aviation industry expert. “No matter what the new conclusion will be, controversy is unavoidable.”

“If the Gimhae airport project is scrapped, the entire project will go back to square one,” said Professor Hur Hee-young of the Korea Aerospace University. “Everything, starting from the preliminary feasibility study for site selection to actual site selection, must be redone.

“It took 10 years to decide on the current plan of expanding the Gimhae airport, and it will be impossible to estimate how much longer it will take to decide on a new project,” he said. “It will set a terrible precedent for the decision-making process of state-run projects, and the social costs will be enormous.”

Moon’s latest remark also stirred up political controversy, particularly from the conservative main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), as many of its lawmakers represent the southeastern region.

LKP politicians in Busan and South Gyeongsang responded that they welcome reopening the possibility that a new airport will be built on Gadeok Island. The plan was initially shelved for its low cost-effectiveness.

“Before the last general election, Moon had promised that his government will start the construction of a new airport if Busan allows five seats for the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Yoo Ki-june, who represents Busan’s Seo and Dong Districts. “His remark, therefore, indicates that he will push forward with the new airport in Gadeok.”

The Moon administration already allocated a total of 6.7 trillion won ($5.93 billion) for four infrastructure projects in Busan, Ulsan and South Gyeongsang, often referred to as the PK region of Korea.

A 4.7-trillion-won project for an inland railway in the southern region is one of them.

The amount was already far larger than what other regions received. Daejeon and South and North Chungcheong received 3.1 trillion won, while Daegu and North Gyeongsang, commonly referred to as the TK region, received 1.5 trillion won.

While PK lawmakers are positive, TK lawmakers are disgruntled. Even before Moon made the remark, 10 lawmakers from the region held a press conference Tuesday and said the Daegu Airport relocation project must not be affected.

“If Moon plans to use any of the budget for the Daegu Airport project to push for the new airport project, it is an extremely bad politics that only cares for PK, while abandoning TK,” said Rep. Joo Ho-young of Daegu’s Suseong B District.

Others also say the administration is trying to please angry PK voters after Moon’s confidant, South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyung-soo, was arrested and the president’s approval rating fell in the region.

The LKP’s interim leader Kim Byong-joon criticized Moon for playing pork-barrel politics.

“The president visited the PK region five times over the past two months and made de facto election pledges,” Kim said. “Because his rating is weak in the region, he is presenting pork barrel promises targeting next year’s general election.”

The Blue House rejected the criticism.

“We object to any interpretation, other than the president’s remark that the issue should be decided as soon as possible,” said a presidential aide.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]