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(News Focus) Ulleung's new airport to breathe new life into one of S. Korea's island wonders

2016/06/28 13:00

By Kang Yoon-seung

ULLEUNG, South Korea, June 28 (Yonhap) -- Ulleung, located about midway between South Korea and Japan in the East Sea, is one of the more difficult major island's in South Korea to access, but with the building of a new airport, residents said Tuesday that they are looking forward to positive change that could breathe new life into the local economy and tourism trade.

The island that sits 270 kilometers from South Korea's southeast industrial city of Pohang, has a population of slightly more than 10,000 and is considered a hidden wonder, with its location, natural beauty and unique island culture that is different from what can be seen on the mainland.

At present Ulleung is only linked to the mainland by ferries with the exception of emergencies when helicopters are called to fly out people requiring immediate medical attention.

Residents said they were elated by the plan to build an airport that will finally connect it to the mainland. Many expressed hope that the air link, which they have longed for, will boost the inflow of tourists, which is an important source of revenue. Around 420,000 tourists visit the island every year, which is much larger than the island's resident population, with the airport expected to help to attract some 800,000 people annually.

They pointed out that while the ferry service is good, bad weather often causes sea routes to be closed. On average ships cannot reach Ulleung for nearly 100 days during the year, which has caused both residents and tourists to clamor for faster, modern, and reliable transportation.

The view of Dodong Harbor on June 27, 2016, which currently serves as the main gateway for passengers heading to Ulleung (Yonhap) The view of Dodong Harbor on June 27, 2016, which currently serves as the main gateway for passengers heading to Ulleung (Yonhap)

Even when the ferries are available, a person living in Seoul will need a day to make the trip to the island requiring use of both overland and sea transportation. The same trip can be made in about an hour by plane.

It is because of such handicaps that Ulleung expressed interest in an airport way back in the 1970s, though progress was slow in coming as cost and feasibility of the venture was questioned time and again.

The island even opted to open a helicopter route with the mainland in 1989 although a fatal crash caused the service to be suspended.

A patrol ship recovers a crashed tourism helicopter in Ulleung, South Korea, in this file photo taken on July 28, 1989. (Yonhap) A patrol ship recovers a crashed tourism helicopter in Ulleung, South Korea, in this file photo taken on July 28, 1989. (Yonhap)

"Now, Jeju is a popular resort island. But what would Jeju be like if it had no airports?" said Jung Yun-tae, an official from the construction division of the Ulleung government.

"Accessibility is a key issue when it comes to development and with some travelers complaining of seasickness there is a limit to growth," he added. "We only wish for the government to speed up the plan for the construction."

   Following the rising demand for a faster transportation, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport recently outlined a plan to build an airport on the southern part of the island at Sadong Harbor, one of major gateways of Ulleung which usually handles cargo.

The project being carried out in conjunction with Busan Regional Office of Aviation will cost 580 billion won (US$490 million) and aims to complete construction work in 2020.

The airport is expected to be big enough to allow 50-seat airplane to take off and land on a single runway.

"If there's an airport, our transportation would become more convenient," said Lim Ji-hoon, a 23-year-old Ulleung resident who travels to the mainland twice a month. "As the ship schedule changes due to weather condition, it is sometimes very inconvenient to make travel plans."

  

The view of Sadong Harbor on June 27, 2016, where Ulleung plans to build a single-runway airport (Yonhap) The view of Sadong Harbor on June 27, 2016, where Ulleung plans to build a single-runway airport (Yonhap)

Experts, however, say the construction is going to take longer than expected, adding the allocated budget may not be enough considering the geographic features of the island.

POSCO Engineering & Construction Ltd., and Daelim Industrial Co., which initially expressed interest in the project, claims the stones available on the island are not strong enough to be used on the construction site, and therefore must be secured from the mainland. The original plan was based on the assumption that basic buildings materials needed for the construction could be secured on site.

Considering the transportation fees and other costs, industry insiders claimed the construction budget must be increased by 100 billion won, adding that they will lose money with the existing plan. The two firms have since withdrawn their intent to take part in the construction work.

While the government sought to find new bidders for the project, no South Korean firms have expressed interest, raising doubts about meeting the deadline.

Despite such misgivings, island officials argued that the construction plan itself will not be scraped.

South Korea's land ministry said it plans to open another bid.

The view of Sadong Harbor on June 27, 2016, where Ulleung plans to build an airport. The runway for the Ulleung Airport is set to be built on the location. (Yonhap) The view of Sadong Harbor on June 27, 2016, where Ulleung plans to build an airport. The runway for the Ulleung Airport is set to be built on the location. (Yonhap)

Others say the government should view the airport as a means to better exercise Seoul's control of nearby Dokdo. The islets located only 90 kilometers away from Ulleung has been a source of friction between South Korea and Japan. Tokyo has been claiming ownership, with is viewed in South Koreas as Japan still not repenting for its 1910-45 colonial rule over all of the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea has steadfastly maintains that Isabu of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.-935 A.D.) conquered the island state of Usanguk in the East Sea, which was composed of modern-day Ulleungdo as well as the Dokdo islands, in 512.

The country naturally asserts that after regaining independence from Japan it took back control over all of its territory that includes Dokdo and many other islands around the Korean Peninsula.

While South Korea currently operates a small police detachment on the islets, experts say building an airport on Ulleung will make Dokdo even more accessible as well, and help the country expand effective control.

In terms of economic value, however, some say an airport on Ulleung will not be profitable, since even aiports located on the mainland suffer from this problem.

Residents on Ulleung countered that the airport should be seen not only an improving transportation, but welfare on the island.

"Even if some expect there will be problems including noise, there are very few real complaint about the construction," Jung added, claiming that all residents want the airport to be built.

The blueprint of Ulleung Airport (Yonhap) The blueprint of Ulleung Airport (Yonhap)

colin@yna.co.kr

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