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Incheon Airport CEO resigns under political pressure

March 28, 2023 - 15:10 By Byun Hye-jin
Incheon International Airport Corp. CEO Kim Kyung-wook speaks during the World Aviation Conference 2022 at Paradise City in Incheon, September 2022. (Incheon International Airport)

Incheon International Airport Corp. CEO Kim Kyung-wook said Tuesday he offered to resign, citing political pressure from Transport Minister Won Hee-ryong.

“I have expressed my intention to resign to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister on March 23 that I will be stepping down from the post on April 28,” said Kim during a press conference at Incheon Airport.

“I asked the minister to withhold the news release until I resign as a courtesy. But somehow, a local news outlet reported it the next day,” added Kim, insinuating that the news is highly likely to had been leaked from the transport minister’s office.

Kim will be leaving the CEO post 10 months early, after being appointed on Feb. 2, 2021. His term in office was until Feb. 1, 2024.

Kim said he lost the transport minister's trust after live bullets were found in a Korean Air flight and Incheon Airport.

On March 10, two 9-millimeter live bullets were found in a Korean Air airplane that was bound for the Phillippine capital city of Manila. Six days later, another 5 mm rifle bullet was discovered in a trash can on the third floor departure hall of Incheon Airport.

“(Immediately after the first incident,) I was asked from the trnasport minister's office to not accompany Minister Won Hee-ryong when he visits here. The airport’s vice president and other executives sent him off instead,” said Kim.

On March 12, Won said he would thoroughly investigate the incident to see whether the air authorities handled the situation properly and to punish them in case of poor security management. Two days later, when the transport minister was on his way to a business trip through Incheon Airport, he did not meet with Kim. It is standard procedure for airport CEOs to see off high-level government officials upon departure.

Kim stressed that there have been many incidents of discovering live bullets in the airport even before he took office, and that they do not constitute sufficient grounds for the CEO's resignation. In September and October 2019, live ammunition was found during security checks. Koo Bon-hwan, the former airport CEO, did not tender his resignation at that time.

“But given that Won excluded me from performing my duties (of accompanying him at the airport) since then, I interpreted it as a clear sign from the minister for me to step down as CEO. He couldn’t have asked me directly, since it is illegal to demand incumbent public officials to resign,” he said.

When asked whether he received pressure from President Yoon Suk Yeol’s office because of his previous political affiliation – the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea -- Kim said he could not comment on the matter. In January, Kim, who threw his hat into the ring as a Democratic Party presidential candidate in the 2020 general election, announced he would not run for the upcoming election slated for 2024.

Despite receiving pushback from the transport minister, the CEO underscored he has no intention of filing a lawsuit.

Kim said he has “no regret” in tendering his resignation, but added he wished to stay on as CEO until April to oversee a series of ceremonies and events. These include the airport’s opening anniversary, business evaluation of public institutions and a signing ceremony with the Israel Aerospace Industries on the company’s technology transfer of remodeling cargo aircraft, according to Kim.