State auditor’s dangerous flip-flopThe Board of Audit and Inspection reversed its earlier statement and suggested President Lee Myung-bak’s costly state project of refurbishing four major rivers was actually designed for the greater ambition to create a grand canal across the country. After an investigation in 2010, the independent supervisory agency said it could not find any fault with the multibillion-dollar river renovation project. In 2012, it pointed to various problems, from deficiencies in construction to bidding irregularities. In the third and most recent probe, the agency questioned an ulterior motive behind the state infrastructure project. It is no wonder that the independent agency’s political neutrality is being questioned.
We agree with the need to redesign the four-rivers project. The four rivers - the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan - require refurbishing to better accommodate changing weather conditions. The country spends billions of dollars every year for drought and flood disasters. But we also called for incremental renovation work not only because it called for a colossal budget, but also because it would be more effective to study both negative and positive effects before pursuing the project.
Despite strong opposition and concerns, the government pushed ahead with a plan that involved dredging and damming with accelerated construction to complete it before President Lee’s five-year term expired. Poor and irregular construction and contract procedures were ignored and covered up in the process. In 2012, the state auditor concluded that the construction was ridden with flaws and corruption after investigating the safety and effectiveness of the new dams in helping flood control and water-quality enhancement while suspecting price collaboration among construction companies.
All the questions around irregularities, corruption, oversight and effectiveness of the former president’s iconic state project should be clarified. But the auditor’s suggestion that the previous government aimed to extend the project to realize the ex-president’s signature campaign pledge of connecting the country with a grand canal is also overblown. It pointed out that the dredging of 220 kilometers (136 miles) between Gumi and the foot of the Nakdong River at the minimum water level of six meters (about 20 feet) was too deep and, therefore, had another purpose of serving a canal in the long run. But dredging in other rivers and the rest of the Nakdong was based on lower water levels. Also, how could it explain all the bridges along the dams if the design was to serve a great canal that would transport big vessels?
The Board of Audit and Inspection is suspected of going too far with its probe into the project with the intention of finding fault, generating uproar from officials and politicians connected with the past government. The latest announcement only underscores the simmering rift between the past and incumbent administrations. In 2012, the state auditor came to the conclusion that the construction had many flaws, particularly with the new dams and water quality, not to mention the strong possibility of price collaboration among construction companies. The Lee Myung-bak government would have to answer these questions.
However, the response from the presidential office made matters worse. A presidential spokesman implied that the office sided with the agency by saying that if the findings prove true, the former government caused huge damage to the country. It is inappropriate for a senior government official to make such a comment without substantial evidence. The agency undermined its own credibility as well as that of the government through its irresponsible ways.