Who was pressing the auditors?The Board of Audit and Inspection is - in reality - the only constitutional institution that can properly monitor the government. Although the National Assembly conducts interpellation and government inspections, it lacks the means and the professionalism. Its investigations are often half-hearted and politically tinged. The judiciary’s role is to punish violations of the law after they occur and is therefore unlike the audit board, which can investigate a project or other matters from beginning to end. The board can summon the people involved and search bank accounts. It is a very important watchdog, but it is now involved in the most serious crisis since the beginning of the republic in 1948. People have lost confidence in its oversight of the four-rivers project, and as the head of the BAI stepped down, he criticized “opposing currents and pressure from inside and outside.”
During the dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, people were not aware of the role of the BAI because corruption by the powerful was never investigated. The agency first made an impression on our citizens 20 years ago, when President Kim Young-sam appointed Chief Justice Lee Hoi-chang to head the board, thereby signalling his strong support for reform. Under Lee’s leadership, the board investigated corruption related to the Yulgok project, the procurement of foreign arms and other military equipment. The board charged many government officials and military executives with taking bribes from arms dealers. Two former defense ministers, the Air Force chief of staff and the Marine chief of staff in the Roh Tae-woo administration were also imprisoned. They were the first former military leaders in Korea to be sent to prison for bribery.
But that case was not an investigation into a scandal connected with the incumbent administration, so its actions did not necessarily mean that it had complete freedom of action. But that said, the board straightforwardly addressed a major corruption case involving powerful officials. It investigated former President Roh Tae-woo and summoned former senior military officers, and our citizens supported the agency. As the board’s role was highlighted, Lee’s reputation rose as well. He later became prime minister and ran for president. If he hadn’t gone all the way with the Yulgok scandal, he wouldn’t have been able to show such dramatic political growth.
The probe into the Yulgok scandal was successful because it precisely targeted areas where corruption seemed apparent. The board did not conduct excessive inspections that could be deemed biased or politically influenced. Since it looked into areas where corruption was obvious, the people trusted the board’s conclusions. The board respected the boundary between a legitimate investigation and fishing expedition.
Yang Kun’s inspection of the four-rivers project crossed that line. He offered fanciful inspection results in the core parts of his report. During the third inspection in July, the board said that the Lee Myung-bak administration pursued the four-rivers project with the construction of a grand canal, a campaign promise from 2007, in mind, and thereby wasted money and fanned suspicions of abuse. The board also claimed to have a document indicating that a Blue House official ordered the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs to work on grand canal construction in secret.
But anyone who has ever been to a reservoir would understand that the concept of a grand canal is realistically impossible. When I visited the Haman Reservoir on the Nakdong River, a Korea Water Resources Corporation official explained, “If a canal is to be built to allow big ships to travel, these reservoirs would have to be torn down and built again. All the rivers feeding the Nakdong River would have to be reconstructed. Is that realistic? Why would any administration do that?”
The BAI should have focused its inspection on corruption associated with price-fixing among the builders. Then, it would not have created confusion and would have fulfilled its role as a watchdog. But by suggesting that the Lee administration retained ambitions for the grand canal, it fanned confusion over the four-rivers project. It is not the Lee administration but the Board of Audit and Inspection that created and blew up a scandal.
What made the inspection of the four-rivers project so chaotic? As Yang was leaving the agency, he complained about “internal and external influences.” We cannot be sure if he was talking about the inspection of the four-rivers project. If he was, that is a serious issue. If the agency had received pressure from the outside, it would mean that the Park Geun-hye administration had quietly twisted BAI’s arm to damage the four-rivers project. If his comment was not related to the four-rivers project, then Yang is a coward who made an imprudent remark to save face.
Most of all, we need to find out the truth. The National Assembly should call Yang to a hearing. He should be asked what he meant by “opposing currents and pressures from inside and outside.” If he names the source of that pressure, those who were responsible should also be called to the witness stand. If he does not respond to the National Assembly’s call or does not explain, he is irresponsible. In this country, the head of the BAI should be inspected.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin