[Viewpoint] Lessons from Narita apply to Sejong

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[Viewpoint] Lessons from Narita apply to Sejong

Photos of protestors on a hunger strike often remind me of Narita International Airport in Japan.

Narita is different from other peaceful airports. Fully armed special police forces patrol the grounds, keeping an eye out for terrorists. Local residents have been waging a fight against the airport for 44 years.

If you look down at it from the sky, you can see that the airport is crippled. The original plan included three runways, but only one is in operation now. The second runway, to the north, is cut in half by the house of a homeowner who refused to leave. The taxiway for the third runway, to the east, is not straight but instead resembles an “S” shape. The pilots have to be extra careful when moving from the terminal to the runway.

If you look at a map of Tokyo, it quickly becomes clear that there is no better spot for a new airport than Narita. One hour away from Tokyo, it was the site of a vast farm owned by the imperial family.

But the problems surrounding the airport began when the government stopped paying attention to the locals. About 10 percent of the residents in the area refused offers to relocate. So the government forced them to leave, leading to severe conflicts in which three policemen and some residents were killed. As politicians and student activists got involved, the situation spiraled out of control. Extreme leftists broke into the airport and destroyed the control tower, and a series of arson attacks occurred on the train connecting Tokyo to the airport.

Narita International Airport symbolizes the biggest tragedy in post-war Japan.

Sejong City is an equally challenging equation to solve. It is an ominous sign that local residents of the area are preparing to file a lawsuit for land redemption claims. When the leftist activists promoted a campaign to hold a small parcel of land at the Narita site to hinder the expropriation, the project fell into an irreversible fiasco. Demand for air travel rapidly increased at the time, and the Japanese public was calling for a new airport. However, even the overwhelming social pressure was not enough to persuade hundreds of angry farmers. If the Sejong City project fails to win the heart of locals, the project will not be able to move forward.

We can now look at the response of the Japanese government, which had been patiently working to correct the mistake for more than 10 years.

From 1991, the Japanese government held 27 symposiums and round-table meetings. Respectable and neutral figures offered mediation between the government and the protestors’ group. The protestors reached a conclusion that they would demand an apology from the government. In 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama kneeled down and apologized to the local residents. The old prime minister openly lowered his head a number of times, and his sincerity moved the hearts of the protestors. The farmers voluntarily sold their land and relocated. An elderly man in his 70s who had stubbornly refused expropriation finally sold the last piece of land.

When he was the mayor of Seoul, President Lee Myung-bak canceled the Ttukseom Development Project initiated by former mayor Goh Kun and instead developed the Seoul Forest. Today, the area is the most coveted neighborhood in Seoul. President Lee might be dreaming of a similar result with Sejong City. However, this situation is completely different, as it is more of a political issue.

During a family gathering at the beginning of the year, former Grand National Party chairwoman Park Geun-hye said, “I toured the Chungcheong provinces five times while assisting the presidential campaign for President Lee. At the time I pledged, ‘If you give the Grand National Party and Lee Myung-bak a chance, we will create a city of happiness. You can count on us.’ I cannot be the one to break the promise.”

The Sejong project is becoming a tangled web. Exerting pressure on the project via a national referendum or opinion poll is not enough to convince local residents.

The case of Narita International Airport tells us that we should put the brakes on the project for now. There are talks of passing a revised plan in the National Assembly as early as April. The government and politicians are too hasty.

Sun Tzu discussed the tactic of waiting in the “Art of War.” Sometimes, a detour may be the fastest way to the end result.

If the Sejong project is modified with the next 100 years in mind, it should be approached with the determination that we will wait 100 years to finalize the plan if that’s what it takes.


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Cheol-ho

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