A malodorous resignation
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The sudden resignation of Kang Jung-min as head of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC), which is in charge of maintaining the safety of the country’s 21 nuclear power generators, has raised both scorn and questions. The vice-ministerial official tendered his resignation on Monday, just a few hours before he was to appear at a regular legislative audit of the government. The Blue House approved his resignation immediately.
The abrupt end to Kang’s tenure — just 10 months into a three-year term — is related to a hearing on Oct. 12. Opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) lawmaker Choi Yeon-hye, a member of the National Assembly’s Science and ICT Committee, questioned Kang about a project he was commissioned to undertake as a professor of nuclear engineering at KAIST. He took part in the project aimed at exploring the next-generation sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR) technology from March 1, 2015. The project received state funding of 2,743,632 won ($2,405).
The lawmaker asked him why the project was not on a list the NSSC was required to hand in for a legislative review by the committee. Kang claimed that he was unaware his name was included in the project team.
After some verbal skirmishes, the lawmaker called the official from the NSSC who drew up the list. She asked why the list omitted Kang’s project and whether he was ordered to do so. The official said that he had reported the affair through the secretarial office of Kang.
She pressed on, warning that he would be held accountable for lying if he was doing so. At that moment, Kang stepped in and admitted he made the order. That would be a violation of internal NSSC regulations that prohibit anyone who received research funds from the nuclear power industry or related organizations within the last three years from sitting on the commission. Anyone with such a history must resign as a member of the commission.
The NSSC must demonstrate the highest technological intelligence and complete integrity as its work involves us all. The lives of the people are at stake. It must stay truly independent without any connections to the nuclear industry. That is why all nine members, including the head of the commission, are all appointed by the president.
The Kang fiasco underscores at least three problems.
First of all, the incident once again shows the narrowness of the human resource pool available to this leftist government and its astonishing slackness in verifying the eligibility of candidates for senior public offices. Kang was unrelated to nuclear safety from the beginning. He backed the suspension of the construction of Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors when their fate was put to a public test after President Moon Jae-in announced a plan to phase out nuclear power. As the government has been persistently picking candidates who are supportive of its policy, many of them lack neutrality and even the right amount of professionalism. The Blue House once again failed to double-check whether this candidate passed all the requirements.
Second, the issue involves fabrication of government documents. The documents the NSSC submitted to the National Assembly committee only listed projects Kang was involved with until 2014 and not beyond. That should have raised serious questions, but nobody in the NSSC bothered with it. The official regretted that he erased the files upon the chair’s order without questioning.
Third, no one is taking responsibility. When a scandal involving a four-star general and his wife erupted — they were treating soldiers as their personal housekeeping slaves — the Defense Ministry refused to accept Gen. Park Chan-ju’s resignation even after he submitted it because he was under investigation. When he was acquitted of criminal charges for forcing soldiers to remain alert for around-the-clock calls to take care of personal affairs, he was slapped with another charge of receiving bribes and finally arrested. In the final trial, he was found guilty of receiving illicit funds of 1.84 million won out of a suspected 7.6 million won and got a suspended one-year sentence on a four-month jail term. He is accused of hiding 6.74 million won. He is under greater charges of faking a government document and lying at a parliamentary heading. Yet the Blue House spared him any further disgrace by discharging him shortly before the audit.
It is fortunate that the affair at least became known. Somebody in the NSSC could have leaked it to the opposition. There may be some sense of conscience still left in government offices. Let’s just hope that the government does not waste resources to hunt down the whistleblower.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 1, Page 30