INCHEON INTERNATIONAL Airport is the world’s first airport to win the Airport Service Quality Award for “Best Airport Worldwide” for ten consecutive years (from 2005 to 2014). Moreover, Incheon International Airport is the international gateway to South Korea, which over 45 million people fly through per year. Nonetheless, several security issues, such as the planting of a fake bomb, drug smuggling, and illegal entry, have occurred consecutively at Incheon International Airport this year. Due to such repeated security lapses, the country’s leading airline hub is facing fierce criticism from the public. What are the fundamental causes behind such lax security at Incheon International Airport?
Illegal entry in a blank
There are several problems with Incheon International Airport’s process of inspection. All the passengers coming to Korea from abroad undergo security checks before they depart from foreign countries. Once they arrive at Incheon International Airport, South Koreans are exempt from detailed customs inspection, so their belongings are not checked twice unless they display suspicious behavior or come from crime-ridden countries. Hence, if a South Korean entrant has no previous convictions reported to the customs service, he or she does not need further X-ray examination.
Meanwhile, foreigners are in principle subject to meticulous inspection upon entering the country. In reality, however, the customs inspection of foreign passengers is not that keenly conducted when the passengers crowd in during peak times. To avoid delays, inspectors just quickly examine their belongings. As such, under these loose inspection conditions for both South Koreans and foreigners, a Korean drug smuggler was able easily to succeed in entering the country through Incheon International Airport on Jan. 12.
The airport’s worn-out facilities further exacerbate the problem. The 3rd departure checkpoint, where a Chinese couple illegally passed through with ease on Jan. 21, was known for its relatively outdated, poor facilities. Prior to the incident, those working at the departure lounge had long noticed that the departure gate was not equipped sufficiently with a system to block unauthorized intruders. As such, they requested for replacement of the departure gate so that it could either lock its screen door automatically or only open with security passes, but their request was ignored.
The airport’s lack of adequate facilities was once again revealed when the Incheon International Airport Police could not investigate efficiently the suspect in the fake bomb incident. A box suspected to be an explosive was found on top of a toilet in a men’s restroom at Incheon Airport at the end of January. The police had to trace the suspect by heavily depending on the Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) camera, which had never been replaced since the opening of Incheon Airport in 2001. Because this outdated CCTV camera had only 0.41 megapixels resolution, the police faced difficulty when they attempted to unravel the identity of the suspect. Only recently has Incheon International Airport started to replace all of these outdated CCTV cameras with new ones that have a resolution of 2.0 megapixels. As can be seen through this incident, the Incheon International Airport Co. had long neglected its duty to update crucial security facilities.
Nonetheless, the company has long planned for construction worth ￦5 trillion to enlarge the airport with additional terminals and berths by 2017. Although senior officials from Incheon International Airport show a high level of interest in enlarging the size of the airport, they are stubbornly reluctant to replace the outdated facilities, which could once again undermine the passengers’ security in the future. The obsolete facilities in the airport clearly show that Incheon International Airport is unable to stop people from illegally entering the country.
Quarantine line on alert
As quarantine is at the frontline of national security, it is one of the most important departments. The Incheon International Airport National Quarantine Station struggles to prevent the influx of pandemics that may come via international airlines and passengers. Due to the outbreak of the Zika virus this year, quarantine officials have been alerted to inspect thoroughly all the passengers from Latin America. Quarantine duty requires a large number of staff, whose scrupulous attention is essential. Nevertheless, the current number of quarantine officials is simply insufficient to carry out the inspection effectively. According to A Study on Management of Manpower of Korean Disease Control published in 2014, there must be at least 272 quarantine officials in Incheon International Airport, when considering the number of passengers that pass through it. Hence, in the midst of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, Incheon Airport National Quarantine Station had requested the Korean Disease Control that it needed to increase its number of officials from 42 to 142. Due to budget constraints, however, only 15 quarantine officials were supplemented.
Insufficient number of quarantine officials eventually increases each person’s work burden, which leads to a slower and less thorough inspection process. The quarantine officials work in three shifts, and each official is in charge of 14 quarantine areas at the Incheon International Airport. However, when the airplanes from infected countries arrive at the airport, a single official cannot quarantine hundreds of passengers alone. Therefore, quarantine officials from other sections come to help, leaving some sections unmanned. This can also potentially lead to a big problem, as the passengers, who enter through the empty quarantine areas, are not thoroughly inspected. Paik Min-ho (Prof., Dept. of Disaster Management & Engin., Kangwon National Univ.) stated that, “With the current number of quarantine officials, the influx of infectious diseases from foreign countries cannot be completely blocked.” Therefore, the scarce number of quarantine officials should be addressed immediately.
Moreover, the frequent absence of the Director of the Incheon International Airport National Quarantine Station constitutes another problem. The Director of the Quarantine Station has the authority to order quarantine to guard against the potential influx of diseases. On Jan. 4, Kim Won-jong (Director, Incheon Airport National Quarantine Station) resigned and declared his candidacy for the National Assembly only five months after his inauguration as Director of the Quarantine Station. In fact, a total of six Directors have been appointed to the Quarantine Station at Incheon International Airport since 2010, but only one Director served for more than a year. Therefore, as of now the position of Incheon Airport National Quarantine Station Director has remained vacant for more than a month. The Director’s lack of responsibility towards his duties as the head of the department further damages the Quarantine Department’s work efficiency.
Lastly, the Incheon International Airport National Quarantine Station must implement an alternative quarantine method rather than just using thermal cameras and quarantine questionnaires. The quarantine officials have been highly dependent on thermal cameras and quarantine questionnaires that simply serve to distinguish passengers suspected of carrying infectious disease. Thermal cameras measure body heat, which appears in red areas on the screen. This camera can only measure the intensity of heat from exposed parts of the body, however. Therefore, the camera can only precisely measure the passenger’s facial heat and cannot accurately measure the passengers’ body temperature as a whole.
Furthermore, the quarantine questionnaires fail to serve their purpose of distinguishing passengers suspected of carrying infectious disease. For instance, passengers do not thoroughly comment on the quarantine questionnaires because they believe the questionnaire itself is merely an insignificant, nominal procedure. Moreover, some passengers omit their personal information while filling out the quarantine questionnaires, whereas others even forget to turn in their questionnaires to quarantine officials. Thus, the biggest drawback of quarantine questionnaires is that the passengers are not required to write down their health status correctly and thoroughly.
Insufficient counterterrorism measures
The threat of terrorism has never ceased in the 21st century. Unlike many other countries, however, there is no effective legislation that deals specifically with counterterrorism measures in South Korea. The planting of the hoax bomb earlier this year has triggered public concern about security procedures at Incheon International Airport. The inadequate, sluggish responses of the airport authorities to the fake bomb incident clearly demonstrated that the officials did not have sufficient counterterrorism measures in place.
After the 9.11 terrorist attacks happened in the United States in 2001, the South Korean government first proposed the Special Act on Counterterrorism Measures in order to cope effectively with future terror attacks. By enacting this legislation, the government aimed to establish a National Counterterrorism Center and centralize counterterrorism measures under the command of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The Special Act on the Counterterrorism Measures was not passed, however, as some legislators and civic groups strongly protested against the NIS’s role as the control tower. They opposed the law because they believed that it would eventually enable the NIS to invade individual privacy if it were allowed to track suspected terrorists by gathering information. Due to incessant controversies, this act has not been approved for 15 years and a total of three bills related to anti-terrorism law still remain pending. By deferring legislation of counterterrorism measures, the South Korean government remains very much vulnerable to potential terrorist attacks.
Under the National Guidance of Counterterrorism Action, counterterrorism measures are distributed amongst several different public agencies. The Incheon International Airport has more than 20 sub-departments, in fact, so cooperation is very hard to achieve in emergency situations. According to the national guidance, when an urgent crisis occurs, the NIS has the authority to convene all the departments in a public agency to hold a council on anti-terrorism measures. Therefore, when the incidents of the fake bomb and illegal entries occurred, the NIS summoned officials from the various departments of Incheon International Airport and instructed them to collect and analyze the information between each other, but it did not work. The Immigration Office did not notify the Incheon Airport Police about the illegal entry and the entrants’ personal data as they did not have a legal obligation to do so. This was because even though the NIS advised the departments to exchange information, it could not give legally binding orders. As a result, the police found about it through the news later on. As such, the NIS cannot properly act as the control tower of counterterrorism measures, as they had no legally mandated authority.
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Incheon International Airport prides itself on its ability to provide the fastest and the most convenient airline services in the world. Nonetheless, behind the Incheon International Airport’s public image, fundamental security issues have always existed. Inevitably, these internal problems that have persisted for years have risen to the surface in light of several recent incidents of security breaches. Incheon International Airport, therefore, must first take a look at its current management and regulation systems that are full of loopholes. To regain its status as the “Best Airport Worldwide”, Incheon International Airport should immediately fix its problems so that passengers no longer feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Now is the time for the Incheon International Airport to have a turning point.