The buck stops somewhereThe Special Act on New Gadeok Airport was passed in a plenary session of the National Assembly last Friday. The passage took place just three months after the bill was proposed in November. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) overwhelmingly approved it while the opposition People Power Party (PPP) was split between members from South and North Gyeongsang.
In a strange turn of events, what the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport called “the largest construction in Korea’s history” was endorsed just three months after the submission of a bill without any scrutiny. A massive construction project that is estimated by the ministry to cost over 28 trillion won ($24.9 billion) was approved by the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Committee on Feb. 19 and the Legislation and Judiciary Committee on Feb. 25 and in the full session the following day. A shorthand report of the deliberation by the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Committee shows how fast the act was approved. After a vice minister of the ministry pointed out many problems with it, many lawmakers joined the vice minister. They complained that even a district office “wouldn’t dredge small streams in such a rush.”
In early February, the ministry submitted to members of the Infrastructure Committee a report on seven points, including safety and economics, regarding the construction. On safety, the report pointed out mounting aviation safety risks as the new airport’s air traffic control would overlap with Jinhae Airport nearby. The report also expressed concerns about problems with construction because of the need for land reclamation, not to mention the new airport’s vulnerability to typhoons. As a result, the ministry raised the cost of the construction to 28.7 trillion won from 7.5 trillion won as estimated by Busan city in the beginning.
Nevertheless, such concerns from the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Environment were dismissed by the National Assembly. If such a dangerous project takes off in such a way, the general public will have to pay the price whether it be a safety issue or tax issue.
As if it had anticipated such problems from the start, the Infrastructure Ministry showed concerns about the project. “If we do not oppose the special act while being aware of apparent procedural problem, it could constitute a dereliction of duty,” the ministry wrote in a report to the legislature.
Yet President Moon Jae-in urged Infrastructure Minister Byeon Chang-heum to press ahead with the project. On a trip to Gadeok Island last Thursday, Moon stressed the need for the ministry to complete a new airport on the island. In reaction, Minister Byeon promised to do his best to build the airport after saying sorry for giving the impression that his ministry objected to the construction.
After the impeachment and ouster of President Park Geun-hye in 2017, many civil servants went to jail as a result of the Moon administration’s crusade to “root out past evils” embedded in officialdom. That fear has forced officials in the Infrastructure Ministry to effectively prepare for such a moment of punishment. But somebody must take responsibility for the rush to construct a nonsensical airport in the face of objections from the government itself.