Aide takes fall for tech transfer debacle in U.S.

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Aide takes fall for tech transfer debacle in U.S.

President Park Geun-hye replaced her top foreign affairs aide on Monday, following a controversy surrounding the country’s largest-ever defense project to develop advanced fighter jets.

Kim Kyou-hyun, deputy chief of the presidential office for national security, was named the new presidential secretary for foreign affairs and security, Kim Sung-woo, senior presidential secretary for public affairs, said Monday. Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong was named to succeed Kim.

Kim replaced Ju Chul-ki, who reportedly offered his resignation as controversy grew over the country’s project to develop new mid-level fighter jets. Seoul’s calls for technology export licenses from Washington were repeatedly rebuffed, and the latest refusal came as Park was visiting the United States last week.

The JoongAng Ilbo reported Monday that Park had been kept in the dark about the situation for months.

“The Defense Acquisition Program Administration was informed by the United States in April that it won’t transfer four key technologies,” a senior source close to the administration said. “It waited two months and informed the Blue House about the situation in June. On top of the delay, Park was not briefed properly. As some presidential officials started talking about holding someone accountable, Ju said he will take responsibility for the situation.”

Code-named KF-X, the program aims to develop new multirole fighters with more advanced capabilities than the U.S.-built F-16s. The government will invest a total of 18.4 trillion won ($16.4 billion), including 8.5 trillion won for development, the largest procurement plan in Korea’s history. Through the project, 120 jets are to be developed by 2025.

In September 2014, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration signed a deal for the KF-X program with American defense company Lockheed Martin, selected to provide 40 F-35s under a previous F-X project for technology transfer and investment. The procurement office, however, finally admitted last month that Washington in April refused licenses to transfer to Korea four core technologies that are needed to develop KF-X aircraft.

The presidential office started an audit last month of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration as skepticism rose that the government had concealed unfavorable contract details.

National Defense Minister Han Min-koo appealed to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for the technology transfer during a visit to the Pentagon last Thursday but was rebuffed. Han was accompanying Park on her Washington trip, and he made the request in bilateral talks with Carter.

Washington made clear that it wants to preserve its advanced F-35 stealth fighter technology, including an active electronically scanned array (AESA) multifunction radar system, for security reasons.

The rejection was reported by the Korean media as an embarrassment that tainted Park’s Washington trip.

In addition to the appointments in the presidential secretariat, Park also replaced her vice foreign and defense ministers. Lim Sung-nam, Korea’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, was named the vice foreign minister, and Hwang In-moo, former vice chief of staff of the Army, was named vice minister of national defense.

The media and ruling Saenuri Party members complained that Han had made a wrong diplomatic call by making another request to his U.S. counterpart for the technology transfer, even though it was anticipated that Washington wouldn’t budge. Despite criticism that her U.S. trip was ruined by the humiliation of her defense minister, Park kept Han in his job.

Kim Kwan-jin, chief of the National Security Office of the Blue House who headed the Ministry of National Defense when Korea signed the deal with Lockheed Martin, was also under pressure to resign, but Park also kept him onboard.

The Defense Ministry defended its minister on Monday.

“Some media reported about humiliating diplomacy, but this is nothing to be humiliated about,” said Kim Min-seok, spokesman for the ministry. “Based on the Korea-U.S. alliance, the United States agreed to form an interagency working group to enhance cooperation on defense technology issues. This should be seen as significant progress.”

Kim said both lawmakers and the media felt it was necessary for Seoul to put more effort into obtaining the technologies, and that prompted Han to act.

“If you ask an elementary school student what he will do if he scores 99 points but not 100 points in a test, he won’t be able to answer,” Kim said. “The Ministry of National Defense and the Defense Acquisition Program Administration are not, of course, elementary school students, but a research and development project is a difficult task with a high level of uncertainty. We hope the public has more faith in the government to succeed in this.”

Although Park replaced her key foreign and security officials, the fallout from the KF-X controversy is expected to continue. The National Assembly’s National Defense Committee grilled Minister Han on Monday over the project’s feasibility and how the deal was shaped by the government.

At the initial stage of the F-X project, the government leaned toward purchasing Boeing’s F-15SE, but the decision was reversed in September 2013. The Defense Project Committee, headed by then-Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, rejected the plane model because it lacked stealth function.

In December 2013, the Joint Chiefs of Staff selected Lockheed Martin’s F-35A as its sole candidate. In April 2014, the Defense Project Committee made a final decision to purchase 40 F-35As. However, no detail was revealed on why the change was made, the committee citing military confidentiality.

In May 2014, the Air Force, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration and industry experts attended a meeting for the KF-X project hosted by Ju. The procurement administration signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin in September 2014 that the company would transfer 21 out of 25 technologies needed to push forward the KF-X project. In a separate contract, it agreed to put efforts into obtaining U.S. government approval to transfer the remaining four.

Lockheed Martin, however, informed the Defense Acquisition Program Administration this April that Washington did not approve the transfer of the four technologies. The administration only informed the Blue House in June.

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