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(News Focus) Gov't in dilemma over new airport plan ahead of crucial elections
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, March 28 (Yonhap) -- Fierce political debates are brewing in South Korea over whether or where to build a new airport in the nation's southeast, a facility that residents and politicians claim would be another major gateway to Busan and neighboring cities.

   For the Lee Myung-bak administration and the ruling Grand National Party (GNP), the issue is a ticking time bomb just a month ahead of crucial by-elections regarded as a bellwether of next year's general elections and the presidential polls, Lee's aides admit.

   In 2006, the Roh Moo-hyun government in power at the time proposed building a new airport in the southeastern region, dubbed "Yeongnam" in Korean, a traditional power base of the GNP.

   Under the plan, South Korea would construct a 6.6 million square meter airport in the region at the cost of 10 trillion won (US$8.9 billion) by 2025. The Roh administration said it would handle around 10 million passengers a year, becoming South Korea's second hub airport for Northeast Asia after Incheon International Airport, just west of Seoul.

   During his presidential campaign, Lee also promised to push to construct the new airport in Yeongnam. Two prospective sites have emerged, roiled with fierce competition: Gadeok Island, in South Korea's second largest city Busan, and Miryang, which is supported by the two industrial cities of Daegu and Ulsan. Municipal officials and lawmakers with constituencies in both areas have been lobbying hard to win the bid.

   The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said it will announce this week the results of an assessment by a team of government officials and civilian experts on the candidate sites. The announcement, slated for Wednesday, comes after the government has delayed dealing with the sensitive matter for years.

   But presidential officials hinted at the possibility of aborting the airport project itself, questioning the economic benefit since high-speed trains already link the Yeongnam area to Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi Province.

   "The assessment committee is expected to announce that (an airport in) both Miryang and Gadeok Island is economically non-viable," an official at Cheong Wa Dae told Yonhap News Agency on the condition of anonymity.

   Another Cheong Wa Dae official said the expansion and renovation of Gimhae International Airport, north of Busan, could be an alternative.

Residents in the southeastern province of Gyeongsang call for the creation of a new airport in the region during a rally. (Yonhap file photo)

Speaking to reporters last month, the president stressed that the airport issue should be handled from an economic perspective, not politically. The economy-oriented approach is viewed as reflecting the government's dilemma amid the competition between the two politically important candidate areas.

   Any problem would be a political setback to the Lee administration, with strong protests by local residents expected.

   Last year, Lee suffered similar troubles with his botched drive to scrap a plan to create an administrative town in the central province of Chungcheong, one of his campaign pledges.

   Critics say the president has become a "campaign pledge breaker."

   Furthermore, the new airport project directly involves the upcoming by-election in Gimhae to select a lawmaker.

   "Many residents in Gimhae hope that the existing airport there will move to Gadeok Island. If the project is scrapped, it will work negatively for the GNP," a party official said.

   The lawmaker said, requesting anonymity, that the government seems to suffer from the illusion that scrapping the airport plan would bring an end to the controversy, when it would actually spark bigger problems.

   He said it may also accelerate the rate at which the president becomes a lame duck as rallies against the government's decision will continue through next year's general elections.

   Observers do not rule out the possibility that the government will make an equivocal announcement on its decision this week to avoid immediate trouble before the by-elections.

   Seoul National University professor Park Chang-ho, head of the evaluation committee, said last week, "I think a hub airport in the southeastern region with its population of 13 million is needed."

   He added, "We may or may not reach a conclusion in the first assessment."

   The president, meanwhile, said the airport issue will be resolved by the first half of this year.