The Korea Times
Lotte Should Tackle Flight Safety, Other Thorny Issues
The Lotte Group, one of the nation's largest conglomerates, is likely to realize its long-cherished dream of building a 555-meter-tall skyscraper in southeastern Seoul. On Wednesday, the Lee Myung-bak administration took a step toward giving the go-ahead to the 1.7-trillion-won mega project. That is, it has changed its previous position against the plan in a move to end 14 years of a conflict of interest between business and national security.
Industrial sources predicted that Lotte might break ground as early as March, anticipating a fast government decision. However, the decade-long controversy over business favors for the family-run chaebol at the sacrifice of the public good will not die down easily. Over the past years, the government had turned down the building plan for security reasons. Still at stake is the safety of aircraft flying in and out of Seoul Airport in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, which is too close to the planned 112-story high-rise.
In this regard, the previous governments had recommended that Lotte build a 352-meter-high structure. In particular, the Air Force had strongly opposed the project, claiming that a skyscraper as tall as 555 meters would pose a serious safety threat to planes taking off from and landing at the military airport less than 6 kilometers south of the site. The administration of former Presidents Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun backed the Air Force's stance.
However, President Lee has reportedly sought to change the government position since he took office last February. His move is not surprising as he already expressed his support for Lotte's bid while serving as Seoul mayor from 2002-06. There were allegations that the group has actively lobbied for its ambitious project by taking advantage of Lee's pro-business policy. The President has reportedly instructed his policymakers to positively review Lotte's request, believing that the construction project will create a large number of jobs. He is also allegedly in favor of easing the building height limit in accordance with his deregulation drive.
At last, the government has decided to consider shifting a Seoul Airport runway by 3 degrees so that the new building will not compromise flight safety. An official disclosed that Lotte has accepted a government request that the group finance the cost of the runway alteration, which is estimated at 100 billion won ($77.5 million). The Ministry of National Defense and Lotte have yet to sign an official agreement on the matter. However, optimists say it is only a matter of time before the government approves the project.
But critics point out that the Lee administration may set a bad precedent for sidelining national security only to promote the business interests of Lotte, a group of 50 subsidiaries that includes department stores, hotels and amusement parks. They warned of potential air accidents, as the airport is a strategic military base for flying reconnaissance aircraft, fighter jets and cargo planes. Policymakers should consider emergency situations, such as a war and terrorist attacks, before making a final decision.
Besides, the authorities should tackle practical issues such as traffic congestion and the environmental effects a skyscraper will pose to the area. Residents of Seongnam are denouncing the government by saying it is trying to allow Lotte's plan without easing the 45-meter building height limit on the Gyeonggi Province side of the airport. It remains to be seen how the Lee administration will harmonize the conflicting interests on the basis of public consensus.