Park defends airport backpedal

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Park defends airport backpedal

President Park Geun-hye defended on Wednesday the administration’s decision to scrap a new southeastern airport plan, as criticism grew that her obstinate campaign promise and failure to keep it have caused unnecessary controversy.

“A foreign expert agency was commissioned to conduct a study and concluded that expanding the Gimhae International Airport to serve as an entirely new airport will be the best way,” Park said Wednesday afternoon in her meeting with the National Unification Advisory Council. “The government decided to accept the plan.”

She also reminded the public that local government heads of the concerned regions met in January last year and agreed to commission a foreign expert for a survey and accept the outcome.

Park also praised the decision for its cost-effectiveness and said the safety concerns of expanding the airport were also resolved under the proposed plan. “From now on,” she said, “the government will do its best to build the new Gimhae airport.”

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport announced Tuesday a decision to shelve the plan to build a new airport and expand the existing Gimhae International Airport to accommodate the growing demand in the southeastern region. The decision was based on a yearlong feasibility study by a French company.

Gadeok Island near the city of Busan and Miryang in South Gyeongsang were the primary competitors for Park’s presidential campaign pledge, estimated to be worth about 10 trillion won ($8.67 billion). But the government said it will expand Gimhae International Airport instead as that will cost less than half that amount. Her comment on Wednesday came amid growing criticism that she had stirred up a wasteful controversy by insisting on a new airport in order to snag votes and then abandoning it later.

In 2006, President Roh Moo-hyun proposed to build a new southeastern airport by 2025 with a capacity to handle 10 million passengers annually. During his 2007 campaign, presidential front-runner Lee Myung-bak pledged to realize the plan, provoking ferocious competition.

After Lee won the election, studies were conducted and the competition was narrowed down to Gadeok Island and Miryang. But Lee pulled the plug on the project in 2011 and apologized to the nation, saying he could not responsibly push forward a project destined to lose money.

At the time, Park, Lee’s political rival, said it was a shame that Lee broke a promise made to the nation and vowed to revive it as a pledge in her 2012 presidential campaign. After a feasibility study, however, she also broke her promise and concluded that the existing airport will be expanded in order to save money.

“The time has come to refrain from making a promise that will provoke confrontations between regions,” said Kim Chong-in, acting chairman of the Minjoo Party. “Although the issue appeared to be resolved, the rage of Busan and North Gyeongsang is still boiling. I am concerned that the politicians will make yet another promise before next year’s presidential election.”

Amid snowballing demands that Park assume political responsibility for having caused a wasteful controversy, the Blue House said she had not broken the promise and that the expansion of Gimhae airport should be considered the same as building a new airport.

“I do not agree that the president’s pledge was broken,” said Jung Youn-kuk, spokesman of the Blue House. “Expansion of the Gimhae Airport is a de facto project of a new airport. The new airport of Gimhae will be the new airport of southeastern region.”

The anger in the Yeongnam region appeared to subside Wednesday as the nation welcomed the Park administration’s compromise plan. Daegu Metropolitan Government, which lobbied for the new airport in Miryang, had no meeting about the issue on Wednesday.

Ulsan and South Gyeongsang, which pushed for the Miryang airport, also accepted the government’s decision. One Daegu newspaper, the Maeil Shinmun, printed a blank front page on Wednesday to protest the government’s decision. At the bottom of the page it read, “The government abandoned the region by scrapping the new airport.”

And in Busan, many local businessmen were upset with the decision.

“The central government and politicians are looking down on us,” said Chairman Cho Sung-je of the Busan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “If the expansion of Gimhae were possible, we would have done so already. We will keep pushing for a new airport in Gadeok.”

Cho also said the business community of the city will review the possibility of building a privately-funded airport.

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

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