|▲ Jeju's current airport is expected to reach capacity next year, when 28 million passengers are expected Photo courtesy Jeju Tourism Organisation
In the latest bid to halt the planned second airport in Seongsan-eup in the southeast part of Jeju, protesters are bringing the world’s attention to rare lava caves that face serious damage if the project is completed.
Kang Wan-bo, executive chairman of the Seongsan-eup Second Airport Opposition Committee, is calling for an immediate halt to the project so experts can survey the volcanic formations.
“There must be official and objective research into the distribution and value of these caves. They need to be classified and the correct actions must be taken towards legally protecting them,” said Kang.
“Caves are all around here,” he said, “They have a wide range, but we don’t know to what extent because no one has checked.”
Villagers believe the cave system links up with nearby “Honinji”, one of Jeju’s most sacred mythological sites.
“There are “sumgol” (breathing holes) in the fields and the woods. It’s the same at Honinji, which is close by. When it rains, the water all flows into the sumgol. Maybe there are additional caves below [Honinji]. Unknown natural formations. Without properly surveying these areas, their value cannot be judged,” he said.
A 2003 survey suggested there are at least 160 caves on Jeju, only 12 of which are officially designated - such as “Hyeopjaegul” and the UNESCO World Natural Heritage “Manjanggul”. Among the 148 unregistered caves, the survey lists 10 in the vicinity of the second airport, reports Headline Jeju.
The local cave system may link up with nearby “Susangul”, the third longest cave in Korea, at 4.5 km. Susangul was recommended for UNESCO World Natural Heritage status last October. The Jeju Federation for Environmental Movements is in contact with a cave specialist who is preparing a report for UNESCO.
Kang says conservation is unimaginable without a halt to the airport plans.
“It isn’t possible. Think about a runway above or near the caves. It would conflict with both passenger safety and environmental conservation. If we have to choose between the two, the airport needs to be relocated. A new construction site must be found,” he added.
|▲ An entrance to one of the area's caves Photo courtesy Kang Wan-bo
The movement to halt the airport construction arose immediately following the government’s announcement of the project in Nov. 2015 since residents of nearby villages directly affected by the project (Onpyeong-ri, Sinsan-ri, Susan 1-ri, Nansan-ri and Goseong-ri) were not consulted.
Unprepared for such a massive change to the local infrastructure, villagers are engaged in a battle to save their homes while at the same time the cycles of rural life continue around them.
“We cannot even look one inch ahead,” Kang said, “We are extremely busy harvesting radish right now - it’s a hectic part of the season. On the other hand there’s deep concern about the hasty development of the airport.”
Kang says the government has not made any concessions regarding villagers’ objections.
“None at all. Nothing regarding our suspicions about the project, no explanations or actions worth our consideration. And now they're trying to unilaterally force the plan through,” he said.
The second airport was personally supported by President Park Geun-hye. Kang says that if any links are found to the Choi Sun-shil corruption scandal it could help derail the project.
“If there was any influence-peddling in the selection of the second airport site then absolutely it must be postponed,” said Kang.
Kang, a veteran of the democracy struggles of the 1980s, says the Opposition Committee is looking into the “dictatorial” and “undemocratic” site selection process.
“The voices of opposition are increasing,” he says.
Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong has also energetically promoted the project but with gubernatorial elections coming up next year, political support for the project is not as certain as it was in 2015.
“Although airport projects are managed by the Ministry of Transport, the position of the next governor toward the second airport is going to be absolutely crucial,” Kang said.
Despite grassroots and civil society opposition to the airport - Jeju’s 15 environmental NGOs have joined forces to oppose it - many islanders are apathetic and focused on the advantages it will bring.
Experts agree that the existing infrastructure is saturated.
Jeju International Airport currently handles 26 million passengers and it will reach capacity next year when 28 million tourists are projected. Construction on the new airport will begin in the same year and, once opened in 2025, Jeju is expected to process an estimated 40 million passengers.
Unfortunately, the options for airport expansion are relatively few.
In a 2015 study, The Korea Aerospace University Consortium deemed sea reclamation or a floating airport too expensive, and weather conditions ruled out expanding a private airport on the slopes of Mt. Hallasan.
The Consortium judged that the Seongsan-eup site offered the best economic value, with minimal environmental and social damage, despite the fact that scores of Seongsan-eup families will be forced from their homes.
Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong visited Onpyeong-ri on Jan. 15 for the first time in a year, and villagers told him they felt they were being sacrificed for the tourism industry.
One villager complained, “Is it blindingly obvious that this is a second Gangjeong, a second Narita Airport,” reported Headline Jeju.
Kang feels there must be another way. He argues that continued growth in the tourism industry is “ridiculous” and the island should be limiting tourism numbers to protect the environment rather than expanding.
He believes that villagers’ rights as citizens should come before the pursuit of tourist dollars.
“I say this repeatedly: I oppose any plan for a second airport, anywhere, which does not have villagers’ consent,” he said, “We are fighting for our rights within a democratic country.”
And in a poignant twist, the project that could see unprecedented millions flock to the island, might also lead to one man’s exodus.
“I would rather emigrate,” he said when asked to contemplate life if his campaign fails.