Lawmakers place blame in bumbled KF-X project

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Lawmakers place blame in bumbled KF-X project

Demands grew Tuesday in the political arena for accountability in the fallout from the controversy surrounding the country’s largest-ever defense project to develop advanced fighter jets.

Ruling Saenuri Party Rep. Choung Byoung-gug demanded Tuesday that the country’s foreign and defense ministers take responsibility for Washington’s refusal during President Park Geun-hye’s trip to the United States last week to transfer the four core technologies crucial for the fighter jet program.

Choung made his demand during two interviews with CBS and TBS radios on Tuesday morning.

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

For Korea to develop new multirole fighters with more advanced capabilities through the KF-X project, it is essential to obtain core technology from the United States through a separate but related deal known as the F-X program.

Washington made clear last week 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.

As the 18.4 trillion won ($16.4 billion) project fell into jeopardy, Park on Monday replaced her senior secretary for foreign affairs and security to tap Kim Kyou-hyun, the deputy chief of the presidential office for national security.

Park also named new vice foreign and defense ministers, but kept Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and Defense Minister Han. She also kept in place the chief of the national security office, Kim Kwan-jin, who oversaw the KF-X project as defense minister.

On Tuesday, Chung said in interviews that Defense Minister Han had made the wrong decision to make another request in Washington, only to be rejected again.

He added that Foreign Minister Yun was in charge of organizing the summit, including who would accompany the president, and criticized his lack of cooperation and communication with other ministries. When grilled by lawmakers earlier this week over the situation, Yun simply said it was a matter of the defense ministry, which prompted criticism.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) demanded that Park fire Kim Kwan-jin, head of the national security office.

“If someone has to take responsibility for the botched fighter jet project, then it is Kim, who was in charge at the time as defense minister,” NPAD spokesman Kim Young-rok said.

Kim signed the deal with Lockheed Martin to buy F-35s despite U.S. rejection to transfer four core technologies, he continued, demanding Kim’s dismissal.

The NPAD said Tuesday that a thorough investigation into the Blue House was necessary. The probe will be addressed as a key issue at the National Assembly’s House Steering Committee when it audits the government later this month, said Rep. Lee Jong-kul, the NPAD floor leader.

Lee also criticized the Blue House for placing the blame on other procurement bureaus.

“If the Blue House didn’t know the essential details of a contract worth 18 trillion won, then it is a dereliction of duty,” Lee said. “If it did know, then it is an unforgivable act of treason.”

On Tuesday, the Blue House denied that Ju had been fired over the KF-X project. “It’s not true that he was replaced as a punishment or a cover-up,” a senior presidential official said. “Park signed off on the reshuffle before visiting the United States.”

Ju, 69, joined the Park administration in February 2013 as an inaugural member.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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