(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 22)

Stop pork-barrel politics
Rival parties hit for populism over airport plan

Both the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) have come under fire for collaborating in pressing ahead with a new airport project in Busan. The project is apparently based on populism to woo voters ahead of the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and the country’s second-largest city.

On Friday, lawmakers of the DPK and the PPP on the National Assembly Land, Infrastructure and Transport Committee approved a special bill aimed at constructing a new international airport on Busan’s Gadeok Island. The bill is expected to get final approval from the Assembly’s plenary session this week. The rival parties should take the blame for engaging in pork-barrel politics in their desperate efforts to win the elections.

In 2016, the then President Park Geun-hye administration decided to expand the existing Gimhae International Airport to meet the rising number of passengers flying into Busan. The decision was based on a feasibility study conducted by ADPi, a French firm specializing in airport architecture and engineering. The study gave the highest marks for the expansion plan, putting on the backburner other options such as a new airport on the island.

In many respects, the expansion of the Gimhae airport is the best option as it would cost only 4 trillion won ($3.6 billion). Building a new airport on Gadeok Island would require a far higher sum of over 10 trillion won. However, the Moon Jae-in administration has sought to reverse the previous government’s decision purely for political reasons: to garner more votes in polls.

Last November, a panel under the Prime Minister’s Office recommended a fundamental review of the airport expansion, citing safety and environmental issues. It gave a lame excuse for the government to relocate the airport to the island. The relocation plan is only based on populism to boost the DPK’s popularity in Busan where a majority of its residents is in favor of a new airport.

The Gadeok Island option has gained momentum since then Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don, a member of the governing DPK, resigned last April over allegations that he had sexually harassed a female employee. As the mayoral by-election approaches, the liberal DPK is going all-out to appease Busan citizens by pushing the new airport project. The conservative PPP is also resorting to pork barreling to recapture the mayoralty in its traditional power base from the DPK.

But the rival parties have gone too far. They have colluded to exempt a preliminary feasibility survey on the airport plan. It is wrong to include a clause in the airport bill that would open the way for the airport to be built without a feasibility study. Any state infrastructure project with a 50 billion investment or more in total, including at least 30 billion won of state budget, is required to have a feasibility survey to ensure its economic viability and prevent the waste of taxpayers’ money.

Of course, such a survey could be exempted in some cases to achieve policy goals such as balanced regional development. However, it is doubtful if the massive Gadeok airport project is eligible for such an exemption. The Moon government has so far allowed 88 trillion won worth of state projects to proceed without feasibility studies. The airport plan will increase the sum to over 100 trillion won. This is a cause for concern as state debt is snowballing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration and the ruling party should stop pork-barrel politics.