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Gimhae airport plans scrapped; decision reignites wrangling over new airport

Kim Soo-sam, head of the committee reviewing plans for expanding the Gimhae International Airport, announces the committee`s findings on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Kim Soo-sam, head of the committee reviewing plans for expanding the Gimhae International Airport, announces the committee`s findings on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

The plan to expand Gimhae International Airport requires a “fundamental review,” the government announced Tuesday, reigniting the debate over the location of an air travel hub in the country’s southeast.

Tuesday’s decision appears to boost the chances of a new airport being built in another part of Busan, the country’s second-largest city.

“The (Gimhae airport expansion) plan needs to be supplemented significantly, and will be insufficient for future changes such as expansion,” Kim Soo-sam, head of the review committee, said.

The committee was set up under the Prime Minister’s Office last year following calls for a review from the governments and residents of Busan, Ulsan and South Gyeongsang Province.

Citing the Ministry of Government Legislation’s interpretation of related laws and saying the process of drawing up the plans failed to follow protocol, the panel effectively scrapped the plan.

“In light of the interpretation that removing mountain (peaks) should be a precondition of the project, the Gimhae airport plans required fundamental review.”

The plan, drawn up in 2016, would have added a runway to Gimhae International Airport.

According to the Ministry of Government Legislation, related laws require that mountain peaks in close proximity to the planned runway be partially removed. However, the plan did not include removal of the obstacles, which should have been decided after consulting the Busan city government.

The panel also said the original plans failed to fully take into account the project’s environmental impact -- such as noise pollution and its effects on wildlife -- or possible limitations on operating hours to prevent noise pollution in nearby areas.

The matter of building a new airport in the country’s southeast had been floated for some time, with Busan’s Gadeokdo and Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, having been proposed as candidate locations. The two sites were rejected over the course of 10 years, and the government instead chose the option of expanding the existing Gimhae airport.

Calls for another airport in the region were first raised in 2006, and appeared to gain traction the following year, when former President Lee Myung-bak made the airport plans part of his election pledge. Those plans were scrapped in 2010, but revived in 2012 as part of former President Park Geun-hye’s presidential election campaign.

The possibility of a new airport either on Gadeokdo or in Miryang appeared to be quashed for good in 2016, when the government opted to expand the existing Gimhae International Airport -- only to be revived last year.

In December 2019, the government established a panel under the Prime Minister’s Office to review the Gimhae International Airport expansion plans and the process through which the plans were established.

Tuesday’s decision reignited the decade-old argument that the airport is being used for political gain. Some have accused the ruling bloc of using it to gain favor with voters ahead of next year’s by-elections, including the Busan mayoral race.

Speaking in a radio interview, ruling Democratic Party Rep. Kim Du-kwan -- a former South Gyeongsang Province governor -- rejected the suspicions, saying it was the conservatives who had used the airport for political gain.

“I think that the Park Geun-hye administration opting for Gimhae airport in 2016 was an election strategy,” Kim said, adding that there was a clear need for more airport capacity in the region.

According to Kim, Gadeokdo will be the favored option once the Gimhae airport plan is scrapped.

Saying a new airport on Gadeokdo would play an important role in balanced development, Kim claimed that members of the main opposition People Power Party, which holds sway in the southwest, also back the Gadeokdo option.

The plans for expanding the Gimhae airport have been the subject of controversy over the years. Critics of the plan have claimed that the airport’s location limits the length of runway that can be built, and Busan’s heavy traffic prevents easy access by car as it is located only about 18 kilometers from the city center.

The critics claim that while a runway of at least 3,800 meters is required for long-distance flights to take off, the plan involved a 3,200-meter runway.

According to a study in 2018, more than 5 million residents of the southeast region traveled to Incheon International Airport for long-haul flights, generating a cost of over 700 billion won ($633 million). With the proposed new runway failing to accommodate long-haul flights, the extra cost of traveling would remain, despite some 9 trillion won being injected into the project.

By Choi He-suk (