A series of promises of large-scale civil engineering projects is being made competitively by the ruling Minjoo Party of Korea’s presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung and the main opposition People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol. Lee announced a plan on Friday in the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) to accelerate the construction of an aerospace-specific complex in Yeongjongdo and the GTX D line in the Seoul Metropolitan Area. By contrast, Yoon made it clear on Saturday in Busan to plan to exempt the Gadeokdo airport project from preliminary feasible studies; build the GTX rail system to make Busan, Ulsan and South Gyeongsang Province overall accessible to one another within 30 minutes; and relocate the Gyeongbu line underground. Despite a rosy picture of the plans, both the presidential candidates do not provide any detailed fiscal outline to make their empty promises a reality.
No one may oppose the idea of ensuring balanced development across the nation by investing in infrastructure systems in other regions than the capital area. However, they only curry favor with voters of every community that they visit by promising to give top priority to projects in their respective regions. Such a near-sighted election tactic will only elevate conflict among different regions as any infrastructure-related pledge in favor of a certain area such as large-sized infrastructure investment and relocation of facilities unwanted by neighborhoods can spark a backlash from the rest. Nevertheless, presidential candidates only raise risks of conflict and dispute while skipping consensus-building of such controversial issues. It is no news that presidential candidates lock themselves in a vicious cycle of making empty promises to realize long-cherished projects churned out by heads of municipal agencies hell-bent on being reelected without any feasibility verification of the projects.
The reckless competition among presidential candidates has got uglier over time to an extent where it is almost impossible to estimate such an insurmountable level of budget used to materialize thoughtless pledges. The South Korean government’s infrastructure investment budget increased to 28 trillion won this year, a 5.7 percent up compared to last year, which will keep growing to exceed 30 trillion won by 2025. Although national projects usually cost the government only a small amount of budget at early steps, expenditure tends to snowball to give a heavy fiscal burden to the country once construction proceeds. Given that large projects aimed for balanced national development are already in place across the nation, there is a need to check feasibility of presidential pledges for infrastructure investment being poured out in the runup to the election.
Infrastructure projects per se do not generate a profit but enhance public interests across society as a whole. That is why policy makers consider a wide range of issues regarding such projects from economic perspectives of benefits vs. cost to fairness among regional beneficiaries. Nevertheless, infrastructure projects are being taken advantage of by vested interests in the political arena. With such projects executed without preliminary feasibility studies done before, the current administration bears the burden of 100 trillion won, way up from 24 trillion won during the previous government. The whole nation will turn into a massive construction site with a growing debt on its shoulders if the pledges currently being announced are materialized even in a situation where the infrastructure investments in place are already a heavy fiscal burden.