[EDITORIALS]The oil scandal goes higherProsecutors have discovered that Commerce, Industry and Energy Minister Lee Hee-beom was briefed on the progress of the Korea National Railroad’s Russian oil development project last year. Earlier, Kim Se-ho, former vice minister of construction and transportation, had claimed that he had nothing to do with the project, saying that a bureau chief below him had been in charge; this was proven untrue by the prosecutors’ investigation. Now it has been proven that the commerce minister himself has been lying to the people.
Last week, through his secretary, Mr. Lee claimed he had never met Shin Kwang-soon, the former Korean National Railroad president, nor had he received a report from him. That claim followed Mr. Shin’s statement to prosecutors that he had reported to Mr. Lee about the project in August. But on Monday, appearing before prosecutors, Mr. Lee changed his story, saying he had been briefed on the project in September by Mr. Kim and Mr. Shin. It seems Mr. Lee’s memory is only revived when he is brought before the prosecutors.
It is also suspicious that the ministry so quickly approved the national railroad’s plan to invest in oil development. The ministry defends itself by saying that it did so only after the railroad explained that it had invited experts from outside the company to evaluate the project. But this oil project was the same one that the Korea National Oil Corporation had rejected as unprofitable. Regardless of this, the ministry approved it overnight, merely on the assurance that the national railroad had consulted experts. This is why people suspect that the project was promoted, and rushed, at the ministerial level in the run-up to President Roh’s visit to Russia.
Government officials, with their consecutive lies about this case, can be blamed for amplifying the suspicions, because it is highly likely that they have lied to protect someone. The Board of Audit and Inspection’s investigation has only added to the suspicions. The board excluded Huh Moon-suk, a key figure in the oil deal, from its list of people to be barred from leaving the country, on the grounds that he was a foreign passport holder. But the board could have asked the Justice Ministry to stop him from leaving. By not doing so, it helped him escape overseas.
The prosecution must identify whom the officials were trying to protect with their false statements. It must also identify the highest officials in the Blue House and the government who knew about the project.