[Viewpoint] Park Geun-hye’s airport crosswinds

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[Viewpoint] Park Geun-hye’s airport crosswinds

It is hard to believe that the man who orchestrated the stunning Group of 20 summit meeting in Seoul last autumn is the same guy walking clumsily and disgracefully away from his campaign pledge to build a new international airport in the country’s southeast.

The Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements, a government think tank, concluded in 2009 that the project would be a poor investment. Yet the administration kept the idea alive to maintain support in the region. Now, the southeast is disappointed and angry. As far as campaign promises are concerned, President Lee Myung-bak has proven at first irresolute and ultimately unreliable.

And yet the imperfections of President Lee don’t make his conservative political rival Park Geun-hye, former Grand National Party chairwoman, perfect either. She has a lot to answer for, too. Both she and Lee, when they were running for the GNP presidential nomination in 2007, pledged to build a new airport in the southeast.

How she came to the idea of such a large infrastructure project was questionable from the start, as she lacked engineering experts on her campaign team. Then-President Roh Moo-hyun gave the idea a close look and some experts agreed with it. But that does not give Park an excuse to include the airport in her campaign platform.

If she had run and been elected president instead of Lee, her administration, too, would have wavered over the plan. Travel from the capital to the southern region has drastically changed with the high-speed railway KTX thanks to its easier accessibility and affordability.

The main function of an airport is transporting passengers and freight. No matter how sophisticated an airport’s facilities are, no international airlines will use it if they can’t be guaranteed a profitable level of freight and passenger demand. In the official assessment of the possible sites for the airport, Gadeok Island, west of Busan, scored 2.2 and Miryang 2.0, a far cry from the perfect score of 7.2.

So what is Park really saying when she insists the government stick to the airport plan? Is she saying the official assessments of the sites and the project were wrong? If she were president, would the evaluations be different? Or would she choose to pursue the plan for the sake of the “future economy” regardless of the assessment results? Every Tom, Dick and Harry could promise that, especially when not occupying a position that has the authority for such decisions.

Of course, if the economy grows bigger, it will require more airports. The problem is when. The evaluation committee concluded that a new international airport would be unnecessary until at least 2027. Is Park looking into some distant future the evaluation team couldn’t see?

If Park had become president and maintained her senses, she would have also taken into account such variables as the rise of the KTX. If she had the nation’s interests at heart, she also would have sided with the engineers and experts, however painful it would have been, instead of the politicians and self-serving residents of the southeast. In other words, she, too, would have gone on television, bowed and apologized for breaking a campaign promise.

Polls show Park to be the candidate closest to the doors of the Blue House among potential hopefuls in the next presidential race. If Park wants to be a better conservative president, she needs a makeover. She should, first of all, eschew the temptation to make popular but unviable promises. Otherwise she will find herself in the same bog as the incumbent president.

Park’s fans support her stance on the airport, given her southern political background, but some also understand President Lee’s decision. As a leader - and a potential president - she should have been more prudent in speaking about a major state project. She might have come across as more reliable and responsible if she had said honestly and logically:

“However painful and regretful, we have to believe in the judgment of the evaluation committee. The intransigence and arrogance needed to ignore expert opinions will only push the nation into harm’s way. I, too, feel responsible for rashly making the same promise ...

“If the president had reached today’s decision faster, disappointments may have been lessened. I will continue to pay attention to development of southeastern region. In the longer run, the need for a new airport may become certain. At the moment, however, I can’t promise that the need will surface when I run for the president. Not making irresponsible promises is a lesson I learned from the airport fiasco.”

Such a speech would have received plenty of applause.

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

By Kim Jin
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