[EDITORIALS]Straighten up and fly right

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[EDITORIALS]Straighten up and fly right

The South Korean Air Force's next generation fighter jet project is producing rumors by the score. After a rumor circulated that the selection of the F-X project had been tainted by outside influence, we now face possible diplomatic discord. It is upsetting to see the National Defense Ministry's poor handling of the project.

Air force Colonel Cho Ju-hyeong, former deputy head of the evaluation team on the project, was arrested on charges of accepting bribes and leaking classified information. Colonel Cho's wife and his lawyer made tape-recorded testimony of Colonel Cho public on Wednesday; Choi Dong-jin, the Defense Ministry's procurement director, and General Cho Yong-kil, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were identified for pressuring the evaluation team. According to Colonel Cho's testimony, General Cho gave the impression that the U.S.-built Boeing's F15-K was the de facto winner of the bidding at an evaluation briefing in July 2000. Mr. Choi also meddled in the air force's evaluation process in order to favor Boeing, Colonel Cho asserted.

The two top military officials flatly disavowed the charges. A former evaluation team leader also denied Colonel Cho's testimony. Mr. Cho has been arrested on charges of accepting 11 million won ($8,300) from a Korean agent of France's Dassault, Boeing's rival. At this point, it is too early to determine who is right. The military prosecutors should investigate the cases thoroughly and reveal the truth in order to prevent possible diplomatic disputes. The investigation will also help the government select the most appropriate aircraft for our nation.

What is most serious in the rumor-ridden F-X project is that our defense authorities have failed to learn a lesson from past arms purchases embroidered by corruption and suspicion. The project costs an astronomical amount of money, involves state-of-the-art weapons systems to be imported and the fighters, once decided, will be in use for at least 30 years. The Defense Ministry should have set forth strict evaluation criteria, and the selection process should have been transparent. Because the selection has become a great mess, the government faces serious complaints from the bidders, instead of enjoying being a buyer of high-dollar arms. We urge the National Defense Ministry to think about what it has done.
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