Gov’t plans to inspect four-rivers project

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Gov’t plans to inspect four-rivers project

The Board of Audit and Inspection said Wednesday it will conduct an audit, the fourth of its kind, into the Lee Myung-bak administration’s construction project to improve big rivers around the country.

The board will review the Lee administration’s decision-making process and implementation of the project as well as its outcome. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and the Ministry of Environment will be the focus of the audit.

On May 22, President Moon Jae-in ordered an inquiry into the four-rivers restoration project, which already underwent three audits. Two audits took place during the Lee administration and the third was conducted during Park Geun-hye’s presidency.

As part of a green growth campaign, the Lee administration implemented a plan to restore and develop South Korea’s four major rivers - the Han, Yeongsan, Geum and Nakdong - at a cost of 22 trillion won ($19.69 billion). The project, intended to clean up the rivers, reduce floods and droughts and develop riverside leisure facilities, began in 2009 and was declared complete in 2011. In total, 16 weirs, five dams and 96 reservoirs were built.

The project drew fierce criticism from environmentalists, who blamed it for worsening the water quality of the rivers.

Lee, his aides and the conservative Liberty Korea Party condemned the recent decision as nothing more than a “political audit.”

They also questioned whether it was legitimate for Moon to order the public spending watchdog, an independent organ, to conduct an audit. Two days after Moon’s order, a coalition of 40 environmental groups asked the board to conduct an audit on the river restoration project for the sake of public interest.

The board’s advisory council, comprising four outsiders and three board members, concluded Friday that a new audit is necessary for various reasons, including the snowballing budget needed to maintain the water quality of the rivers.

The upcoming audit will examine the Lee administrations’ decision for the project, planning, construction and the management of water quality after completion. The pros and cons of the project will also be analyzed, the board said.

The board will conduct a preliminary study and the audit will start in July. A conclusion is expected in October. While the board insists that it has no political motivation to go after the former president, the outcome could lead to a criminal investigation if any unlawful acts are revealed and if the statute of limitation has not expired.

Although the board is an independent organ, its three previous audits on the river project come to widely varying conclusions.

The first two were conducted during Lee’s presidency in January 2011 and January 2013. While the first largely endorsed the project, the second, which came just one month before Lee’s term ended, pointed out problems with water quality management.

A third audit in July 2013, after Park’s inauguration in February of that year, concluded that the project involved a slew of problems, such as collusion to win bids and inflated costs.

After lawmakers close to Lee challenged the political neutrality of the public spending watchdog, Yang Kun, then head of the Board of Audit and Inspection, stepped down. Yang was appointed to the post by Lee in March 2011 and had about 19 months remaining in his four-year tenure.

Hwang Chan-hyun, the current head of the board, will complete his tenure this December.

The board has long given unofficial briefings to incumbent presidents about ongoing audits, though it is up to Moon if he wants this practice to continue.

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

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