How far will investigation of Wolseong-1 power plant go?

Posted on : 2020-12-07 18:03 KST Modified on : 2020-12-07 18:03 KST
Some see arrest of Energy Ministry officials as Yoon Seok-youl striking back at Blue House
The Wolseong-1 nuclear power plant in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province. (Lee Jeong-a, staff photographer)
The Wolseong-1 nuclear power plant in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province. (Lee Jeong-a, staff photographer)

The arrest of two officials at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) for deleting data prior to an audit by the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) on the early decommission of a nuclear power plant has led to outrage and a sense of crisis among Korea’s ruling Democratic Party.

Despite protests from the Democratic Party that the investigation is politically motivated, prosecutors have received acknowledgement from the courts that a minimal investigation is necessary, and it appears that the magnitude of the repercussions may grow as the investigation unfolds.

On Dec. 4, Hon. Oh Se-yong of the Daejeon District Court expressed concerns about two of three MOTIE officials for which an arrest warrant had been sought over allegations of damaging public digital records, trespassing upon a private residence and interfering with an audit. He approved the warrant to detain a senior official surnamed Moon and a Level 4 official surnamed Kim, noting that they were “denying the charges and may destroy evidence.”

On Nov. 26 last year, MOTIE had asked the BAI to submit internal reports and records of Blue House discussions and press releases related to the Wolseong-1 nuclear power plant. However, the BAI failed to submit most of the Blue house reports, and three civil servants including Moon deleted 444 documents the day before the submission deadline (Dec. 1, 2019). Prosecutors are currently looking into the identity of the higher-ups who ordered the deletion, and plan to summon former Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Baek Woon-gyu and former Blue House Secretary of Industrial Policy Chae Hee-bong for investigation.

Alongside a request from Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae for disciplinary action against Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, the Daejeon District Prosecutors' Office’s investigation into the nuclear power plant has led to the formation of battle lines between Yoon and the Democratic Party. Upon returning to duty on Dec. 1 following a weeklong suspension, Yoon, who is effectively directing the investigation, immediately took up the case and approved the arrest warrants.

In a situation where Yoon is facing disciplinary action, there are suspicions that he is using the nuclear power plant investigation as a means of getting back at the Blue House. Within the Democratic Party, this has also led to complaints about the courts. In a message on Facebook posted after the arrest warrants were issued, lawmaker Woo Won-shik, who is set to become the next leader of the Democratic Party, wrote “It is highly regrettable that even the courts have piled on to lend weight to the BAI and prosecutors’ attempts to back the government into a corner” and “When even the president’s election promises are being treated as a target for judicial action, I can feel it testing my patience.”

“The issue of the warrants was based on the destruction of data rather than [nuclear] policy,” an official from the Blue House stated, refuting the view that this was an attempt by the courts to lend weight to prosecutor investigations into the government’s anti-nuclear policy as a whole. However, it is likely that the upcoming investigation by prosecutors will lead to broader allegations of the Blue House and MOTIE abusing their authority during the process of deciding to decommission the nuclear power plant. It is noteworthy that one of the arrest warrants prosecutors sought for a section chief surnamed Jeong was rejected despite stating “the facts of the offense have mostly been admitted.”

A bill of indictment filed by the People Power Party in October noted Jeong had originally written “[the power plant] is able remain in operation up until the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) makes a decision to permanently shut it down” in a proposal sent to the Blue House on the early closure of the plant, but deleted this at the order of Minister Baek. After ascertaining the role of the Blue House and MOTIE through an investigation of the parties involved, it is likely that prosecutors will focus on whether it is possible to establish a valid case that the Blue House and MOTIE abused their official authority when Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power’s board of directors was making the final decision on the early decommission of the Wolseong-1 plant.

By Kim Tae-gyu, Lee Wan and Jung Hwan-bong, staff reporters

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