Should Korea build new airport near Gadeok?

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The government’s controversial plan to build a 13.7 trillion won ($10.8 billion) international airport near Gadeok Island, off the coast of Busan, is facing growing criticism from many environmental activists and economists who claim the project lacks economic feasibility and will destroy the marine environment.

The critics also argue building the airport in the sea is politically motivated as President Moon Jae-in and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) seek to garner more support from voters in Busan and South Gyeongsang Province ahead of the June 1 local elections.

But proponents of the project say the yearslong push to build an airport in the southeastern area near the second-largest city promotes the balanced growth of the country which is largely focused on the Seoul area.

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Balanced growth?

On April 29, the Ministry of Economy and Finance said the government will forgo a feasibility study and push ahead with its plan to start construction in the latter half of 2025 and complete it as early as June 2035. A feasibility study is a prerequisite for state-run projects costing over 50 billion won.

The ministry-commissioned study seeks to limit waste in government spending, help guarantee the full and stable execution of the projects and bolster overall efficient fiscal management.

“The construction project of Gadeok New Airport will be exempt from the mandatory study and be carried out in accordance with a special law set up to foster balanced growth of the country through government projects,” Second Vice Minister of Economy and Finance Ahn Do-geol said in a statement released Friday.

Behind the unusually expedited decision to forgo the crucial procedure was the outgoing president who said on April 26 that he found it “meaningful that the feasibility study will be waived,” a comment essentially dictating the ministry’s decision.

“It is deeply meaningful that the construction of a new airport in Gadeok, long sought by residents of the southeastern region, will proceed without the feasibility study,” Moon said. “We expect the incoming administration to do its best for the early opening of the new airport, thereby advancing balanced development encompassing Busan, Ulsan and Gyeongsang Provinces,” he added.

Politics all along

However, the law cited by Ahn was hastily set up and passed by the National Assembly in February 2021, less than three months after an oversight committee under the Prime Minister’s Office recommended a “fundamental revision” of a plan to build an international airport in Gimhae, a southeastern coastal city shortlisted as a candidate to house the new airport.

At the time, lawmakers of both the ruling and opposition parties who served constituents in Busan rushed to pass the law, after replacing the word Gimhae with Gadeok, a result of rare bipartisan unity ahead of the then-upcoming Busan mayoral by-election two months later.

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