[News analysis] Prosecutors use investigation of nuclear reactor closure to strike closer to heart of Blue House

Posted on : 2020-11-06 18:02 KST Modified on : 2020-11-06 18:02 KST
Spectrum of investigation aligns with targets selected by People Power Party
The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy at the Government Complex Sejong on Nov. 5. (Yonhap News)
The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy at the Government Complex Sejong on Nov. 5. (Yonhap News)

Prosecutors conducted search and seizure operations on the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE), Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), and the Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS) in connection with the controversy surrounding the ahead-of-schedule closing of the No. 1 reactor at the Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant. This prompted an unprecedented response from Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae, who blasted the “excessive investigation tactics by a ‘politician’ prosecutor general seeking to attack and undermine the administration.”

On the morning of Nov. 5, the fifth criminal division (public investigation division) of the Daejeon District Prosecutors’ Office, led by Lee Sang-hyeon, deployed prosecutors and investigators to conduct search and seizure operations on MOTIE offices at the Sejong Government Complex, the KHNP headquarters in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, and the KOGAS headquarters in Daegu.

“A search and seizure warrant was executed for MOTIE’s energy resource office in connection with accusations [by the People Power Party (PPP)] concerning the Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant,” the Daejeon District Prosecutors’ Office explained, adding that it “cannot confirm specific details because the matter is still under investigation.”

The raids by prosecutors that day in connection with the decision to close the Wolseong No. 1 reactor attracted much interest due to their scope and timing. Not only were the targets broad enough to give the impression of targeting the Blue House itself, but the events also took place just two days after Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s reference to “investigating living [i.e., currently serving] authorities.”

KOGAS CEO has no connections to nuclear power

Also included in the prosecutors’ search and seizure effort that day was the office of KOGAS CEO Chae Hee-bong, who has no connections with nuclear power. The move signals an aim of scrutinizing the entire nuclear power plant closure decision-making process beyond the matter of the deletion and destruction of materials, which had been transferred by the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) as investigation reference data.

An auditing report released by BAI last month alleged that then Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Paik Un-kyu applied pressure on the KHNP headquarters to close the Wolseong No. 1 reactor ahead of schedule after being told by the Blue House about President Moon Jae-in’s remarks on the resumption of the reactor’s operations. According to BAI, MOTIE initially determined that even if the KHNP board of directors were to decide to close the reactor, it would be more economical to continue operating it for the remainder of the period in its revised operation permit (two years) rather than taking it offline immediately. BAI claimed that after hearing about Moon’s remarks, Paik revised the decision in favor of an early closure and immediate suspension of operations. BAI’s conclusion was that the process was not characterized by procedural rationality.

The prosecutors appear to suspect the possibility of improper interference in MOTIE’s policy change. The scope of their search and seizure operations far exceed the areas cited by BAI as being an issue. BAI transferred notification to prosecutors on the deletion and destruction of materials related to the reactor’s closure. But the prosecutors extended their search and seizure efforts to include not only Chae Hee-bong -- who was not connected with that matter -- but also senior officials who were part of the administration’s nuclear power plant policy lineup in 2018.

The scope overlaps with the investigation targets declared by the PPP: in a complaint filed on Oct. 22 with the Daejeon District Prosecutors’ Office, the party named Paik, Chae, KHNP CEO Chung Jae-hoon, and nine others, with accusations including “abuse of authority.” The prosecutors expanded their raids to cover the different departments where nuclear power plant bureau and department directors from 2018 have recently been transferred, as well as the planning and coordination office where MOTIE data is aggregated. Many within and around the prosecutors are predicting the investigation could go as far as the Blue House itself, where officials are seen as likely to be implicated in abuse of authority and obstruction of the exercise of authority following an investigation to track down the higher-ups directing the MOTIE officials in question.

While abuse of power would be difficult to prove, the mere situation of the investigation being reported in the media could deal a blow to the Blue House. But some political controversy also appears inevitable, as the question of the legitimacy of the decision to shut down the Wolseong No. 1 reactor -- which followed in line with the president’s pledge to shift away from nuclear power -- was not the subject of the initial audit.

Yoon Seok-youl’s vow to investigate “living authorities” a declaration of war

The raids have drawn even more notice in connection with the recent activities of Yoon Seok-youl, who has been in conflict with the administration and ruling Democratic Party. Sources within and around the prosecutors have suggested that Yoon’s remarks at a Nov. 3 Institute of Justice lecture stressing that “prosecutorial reform means sternly punishing living authorities” may have been a “declaration of war” ahead of this investigation. The Daejeon District Prosecutors’ Office, which is in charge of major duties related to the investigation, also happened to be Yoon’s first stop after resuming an inspection tour of district prosecutors’ offices that had previously been suspended amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee Du-bong, the chief prosecutor at the Daejeon District Prosecutors’ Office, is considered a close associate of Yoon’s.

A source who previously served as a senior official with the prosecutors said that “the fact that BAI commissioned the investigation gives Yoon a way of sidestepping criticisms that this was a ‘targeted’ investigation.”

At the same time, the source predicted that “Yoon and the prosecutors could find themselves in the middle of another political controversy if the investigation extends to include the content of administration policy decisions.”

By Lee Chun-jae, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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