Choi might have influenced arms procurements

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Choi might have influenced arms procurements

Defense industry sources and opposition lawmakers questioned major arms deals of the Park Geun-hye administration, as rumors spread that her longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, had influenced the high-priced agreements.

The JoongAng Ilbo reported Tuesday that Choi had maintained a friendship with Linda Kim, an arms lobbyist, at least since 2000. Choi was arrested Monday night during the prosecution’s investigation into her alleged embezzlement and tax evasion and unauthorized access to classified information from the Blue House.

“I heard directly from Kim when she talked about Choi,” said a defense industry source who contacted Kim in August. Kim is a Korean-American arms dealer who secured the multimillion dollar Baekdu Project to introduce reconnaissance planes capable of electronic eavesdropping in 1996 for the Texas-based E-Systems Inc. She was also famous for having an inappropriate relationship with then Defense Minister Lee Yang-ho, although he denied that this influenced the deal.

Rep. Kim Jong-dae of the Justice Party, a defense specialist, said Kim and Choi knew each other. “But it was not confirmed if they did business together,” he said.

Defense industry sources said Choi had made business propositions to an agent who works for U.S. and European defense companies. “I heard about Choi’s friendship with Kim,” an industry source said. “I was told Choi stayed in Kim’s residence in Los Angeles for a long time. An agent also told me that he got a phone call from Choi around 2013 to work together.”

The agent did not confirm nor deny his contact with Choi.

Opposition lawmakers said Choi is suspected of having used her influence in the next-generation fighter jet project. The 8.3 trillion won ($7.28 billion) program, code-named F-X III, is the largest-ever procurement program for the Air Force. After it was first initiated in 2007, Korea initially held a tender, and the F-15 Silent Eagle by Boeing, the Eurofighter Typhoon of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, and the F-35As competed. After thorny price negotiations, Boeing’s F-15SE advanced to the final stage of selection, but in September 2013, the government postponed its decision. At the time, the military said its decision to drop the only remaining contender was due to the aircraft’s unsatisfactory stealth features.

“In September 2013, the military was supposed to award the contract to Boeing, but a defense ministry official telephoned 20 members on the selection committee and persuaded them about the need to disapprove of the F-15SE,” a source on the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee said. “The selection was overturned on Sept. 24, 2013. Six months later, a decision was made to purchase the F-35As from Lockheed Martin.”

In November 2013, the military decided to purchase 40 stealth fighter jets in its next-generation fighter jet project, announcing revised specifications. The Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that stealth features and electronic warfare capabilities were key requirements, leading to the decision to purchase Lockheed Martin’s F-35A. Opposition lawmakers suspected Choi’s influence over the abruptly changed standards. “We have to make a political decision,” then Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said in the selection committee’s meeting on Sept. 24, 2013, when it rejected Boeing’s bid. Kim is currently serving as Park’s national security advisor.

The Ministry of National Defense on Tuesday formally denied that Choi influenced the deal. “In order to effectively select the fighter jets that are fit to perform key national security functions for the next 30 years, we proceeded fairly and respected laws,” said Moon Sang-gyun, spokesman of the ministry.

Despite the ministry’s denial, Choi was suspected of having access to the Blue House documents concerning foreign affairs and national security. Justice Party Rep. Kim also raised suspicion about the Park administration’s decision in July to deploy the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system to a rural town of Seongju, North Gyeongsang.

In his posting on Facebook, Kim alleged that Lockheed Martin, the builder of the Thaad system, contacted associates of Park to lobby for the deployment. Because the southern town of Seongju was selected as the site, he pointed out, Seoul and the capital region would be outside the Thaad range and additional defense systems would therefore also be needed.

“By supplying six Patriot missile batteries to defend Seoul at 600 billion won per each unit, a new market of 3.6 trillion won will be created,” he said. “Additional markets will open when it sells missile-defense combat systems on the Korean Navy’s irrational procurement of three Aegis-class ships. Furthermore, another 2 trillion won market will be offered if Korea purchases just one Thaad battery.

“If it manages to accomplish the Thaad deployment by lobbying anyone possible, the rest is offered automatically,” he said. “And you can easily guess who sits in the palm of Lockheed Martin’s hand.”

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