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[Editorial] Bad precedent

Parties pass special law to build airport on island once deemed unfit in order to win by-election

The National Assembly passed a secial law last Friday for the construction of a new airport on Gadeokdo, an island under the jurisdiction of Busan.

The point of the special law is to waive a preliminary feasibility study.

In 2016, a French company specializing in airport architecture and engineering evaluated Gadeokdo as the least fit among three candidate sites of a new airport to cover the southeastern region of Korea. It cited construction engineering difficulties, excessive construction costs and future safety problems, among others.

When it comes to a long-term national project requiring astronomical expenses, it is reasonable to err on the side of caution.

Then, President Moon Jae-in and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea turned a deaf ear to calls for prudence and pushed the special law through. They would not have proposed building an airport on the island without the Busan mayoral by-election slated for April 7. The main opposition People Power Party had eventually announced its support for the project not to lose voters, but some of their lawmakers voted against the special law.

The government should select the sites of social infrastructure including airports based on its feasibility studies.

They are the minimum safety device to prevent a tremendous fiscal waste. The special law does Busan voters a special favor.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport estimated the total costs of a Gadeokdo new airport to rise up to 28.6 trillion won ($25.5 billion), more than the 22 trillion won spent on former President Lee Myung-bak’s four-river refurbishment project that the Moon regime has sharply criticized. The airport construction expenses may snowball further due to the soft ground of the island that would require costly work to firm up. And yet, the law exempts the island from economic feasibility study.

The law also enables the government to skip permission and approval procedures required by 31 relevant laws, including ones to protect military facilities, preserve water and forests, and manage sewage systems. For example, unless the Ministry of National Defense cancels its designation of the military facility protection zone on the island, an airport could not be built, but the procedure to cancel the designation was ignored. The law waivers administrative procedures for the safety and wellbeing of people.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and the Ministry of Justice expressed their positions against the special law, then DP Chairman Lee Nak-yon said that if the National Assembly makes a law, the government ought to follow it. In effect, he told the government not to raise feasibility issues but just to carry out the project.

It stands to reason that related public officials opposed the construction of an airport on the island. They probably know full well that they will likely be charged later with dereliction of duty if they do not oppose an unreasonable, large project.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport was negative about the project, saying that no offshore airport would be as unsafe for aviation as the proposed Gadeokdo airport. However, when Moon told Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Byeon Chang-heum to have the will to construct a new airport on Gadeokdo, Byeon said that he was sorry his ministry appeared to oppose the project.

It is pitiful for the minister to ignore his ministry’s concerns to chime in with the president.

If an opposite view is dominant in his government, Moon should have asked the leadership of the ruling party to legislate a related bill cautiously.

Moon and the ruling party seem to have pushed back against opposition from public officials to turn the tide of their by-election fight against opposition parties. Moon’s visit to Gadeokdo a day before the passage of the special law has something to do with this. The presidential office said that his visit was part of his efforts to vitalize the regional economy, but it appears to be intended to back up DP candidates.

The special law has set a bad precedent in that principles and procedures for a major infrastructure project can be skipped if needed to win over voters. The politically motivated airport will likely become a white elephant like other loss-making provincial airports. The project must be reconsidered.