Opposition wants Cha, Choi projects scrapped

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Opposition wants Cha, Choi projects scrapped

Opposition party lawmakers demanded a complete scrapping of budgets at the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism that directly involve the president’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, and her confidant, Cha Eun-taek, including the controversial Cultural Creation and Convergence Belt with a budget set aside for next year of 127.8 billion won ($111.2 million).

“Among budgets planned for 2016 to 2020, those projects related to culture and creative economy initiatives show the highest expansion,” said a statement made during a press conference at the National Assembly by six People’s Party lawmakers, including Rep. Kim Dong-cheol. The lawmakers are also members of the Assembly’s Special Committee on Budget and Accounts. “Many of them appear to have been planned for the personal benefit of Choi and her friends.”

Choi and Cha, her confidant and a TV commercial director, are accused of unfairly winning extravagant government budgets for about 20 projects at the Culture Ministry and embezzling some of the money for personal use. Choi is at the center of allegations that she meddled in top state affairs. According to the People’s Party lawmakers, the budget allotted at the Culture Ministry next year for projects related to Choi and Cha amounts to 273.4 billion won. The Cultural Creation and Convergence Belt is a project run by the Creative Economy Initiative Public-Private Partnership, a key signature initiative of the Park Geun-hye administration. The project began with rave approval by President Park.

“We will assist the works of Cultural Creation and Convergence Belt so that it will be the central platform in the cultural content industry,” Park said at the opening ceremony of the headquarters of the Creative Economy Initiative in February last year.

Cha was brought on as a co-head of the Creative Economy Initiative in April last year, and wherever he was involved, budgets jumped exponentially. Cha’s tenure at the Creative Economy Initiative ended in June this year. The budget for the Cultural Creation and Convergence Belt in its first year, 2014, was 7.1 billion won. It jumped to 11.9 billion won the following year, when Cha took charge, and then to 90.3 billion won in 2016, 127.8 billion won in 2017, 187 billion won in 2018, and 187 billion won in 2019.

The Culture Ministry’s records also contain cases where Choi and Cha planned projects and the ministry swiftly created a budget for it. Korea Aid, an overseas development project run by the Mi-R and K-Sports foundations, where Cha and Choi are reportedly de facto heads, was budgeted to spend 14.3 billion won next year, though it had no apparent goals or plans. Another project suspected to have been directly or indirectly run by Choi and Cha was one to create a concert arena for K-pop shows, which had a budget of 1.5 billion won in 2015, but blew up to 23.7 billion won for 2017.

Yet another ministry project suspected to have been run by Cha and Choi was one to build a Korean cultural center abroad, which had a budget of 39.5 billion won in 2015 but jumped to 97.9 billion won for 2017.

The Culture Ministry also spent 2.3 billion won over the past two years on supporting operations of the Presidential Committee for Cultural Enrichment, where Cha was a member in 2014. But according to the records of the committee obtained by opposition lawmakers, all that the committee did was hold internal meetings.

“Records show that the budget [for certain projects] at the Culture Ministry was written as Choi wished,” said a representative of the People’s Party, who asked not to be named.

And some funds seemed to have found their way into the pockets of Choi and Cha’s friends and confidants. Song Sung-gak, former president and CEO of the Korea Creative Content Agency (Kocca), who resigned on Monday, is one of them. Song, a longtime friend of Cha, became CEO of Kocca in December 2014. Critics suspect Cha may have helped Song get promoted to this post because then-culture minister, Kim Jong-deok, was Cha’s professor at Hongik Graduate School of Film and Digital Media.

The next year, Kocca’s budget grew to 331 billion won, a growth of 33.6 percent compared to its 2015 budget, despite the fact that all of Kocca’s projects were to end within 1.5 years. Allegations state that Cha granted 76 billion won out of the Cultural Creation and Convergence Belt’s 90.3 billion won budget to Song. Prosecutors seized and searched Song’s house and offices on Wednesday.

“The Culture Ministry will be investigating and making amends to all projects at the ministry that have not kept to regulations,” said Cho Yoon-sun, minister of culture, on Tuesday. “Even if the allegations [concerning Choi and Cha] are not proven, all projects where the two may have been involved will be put to a stop, and those found to have clear relations with the two will be scrapped.”

BY CHAE YOON-KYUNG, JEONG A-RAM AND ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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