Thief in the night

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Thief in the night

Kim Won-bae
The author is a national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

From 11:24 p.m. on Dec. 1, 2019 to 1:16 a.m. the following morning, an official of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy crouched over a desk deleting sensitive files on the Wolseong-1 reactor. He did overtime work after getting a security code from another official who took over his PC.

He testified in a questioning session by investigators from the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) in October 2020, where he said that destroying the files would be better than lying that there were no files on the suspicious early shutdown of the old reactor. According to the BAI report, the official acted on an order from his immediate boss, director-general of a bureau handling electricity supply for Korea. He was advised to do the task over the weekend.

The official was not able to follow his boss’s order easily as the desk was occupied by another in the daytime, and there were too many officials doing overtime work in the evening. But he decided to do it ahead of a BAI inquiry on Dec. 2. Why did he take such a precaution? It must have been because he knew he was doing something wrong from the start.

And yet, officials involved in the operation — the head of the bureau and two working-level officials — all got promoted later. If such a deed was found to have been committed under the Park Geun-hye administration, they would have been punished or possibly sent to prison.

Wolseong Unit 1 was designed to operate until November 2012 and then went through a fix at a cost of 595.2 billion won ($540 million) to extend its life for another 10 years. A trial had been ongoing on whether the extension was legitimate or not. It would have been switched off by November 2022 as scheduled — or faster than the deadline depending a court ruling.

Still, the Moon Jae-in administration rushed with the early shutdown to implement the president’s campaign pledge to phase out nuclear reactors across the country. The BAI’s inspection discovered that the ministry intentionally lowered its estimation of the economic feasibility of the nuclear reactor. The government watchdog questioned the validity of the evaluation process that led to unplugging the reactor ahead of schedule.

It is difficult to find fault with a government ministry trying to execute campaign promises of a president. But the administration should be in compliance with the law. Otherwise, a government official would not have had to sneak into the office in the middle of the night to delete controversial files.

Just like the nuclear reactor, a prosecutor general has a set term. Next July, Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl will be completing his term. Once he retires, the government can finally seat someone who will be more obedient. Yoon has become nearly crippled after Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae maliciously wielded her rights to command the prosecutor general and appoint prosecutors. Still unsatisfied, she launched inspections and disciplinary actions to oust him for good. The prosecution’s raid to investigate all suspicions over the early shutdown of the reactor also provoked the government to remove the eyesore.

But the government’s campaign to push Yoon out has been very sloppy. A prosecutor who was dispatched to the Justice Ministry to help inspect the prosecutor general’s alleged spying on judges ahead of sensitive trials confessed that her argument against the illegitimacy of the surveillance on judges was brushed off by the justice minister.

Yoon was accused of favoring prosecutors who served in the special investigation bureau dealing with major crimes of high-level government officials and politicians. But all prosecutors across 59 district offices and their outposts were united in protesting the justice minister’s injustice in disciplining Yoon. It is wrong to criticize prosecutors for being selfish. Even Yoon’s deputy prosecutor recruited by Choo claimed that he and a majority of prosecutors could not agree that Yoon had committed a serious enough of wrongdoing to be pushed out of office before his tenure expires.

Seven members of the Justice Ministry’s inspection committee also unanimously concluded that the reasons cited by Choo did not justify punishment of Yoon. The Seoul Administrative Court accepted Yoon’s request for an injunction on Choo’s order to suspend him. The judge said that if a prosecutor general blindly follows a justice minister’s order, the prosecution’s independence and political neutrality cannot be sustained. The ruling was a strong message to the justice minister.

Judges, prosecutors and public officials are not politicians. They must not sneak into an office at night to discreetly destroy files or edit reports to meet a design of the higher order.

Regardless of one’s personal opinion of Yoon, dismissing a chief prosecutor early without legitimate grounds is just not right. Common sense and conscience should not be compromised. A word of advice to the members of the disciplinary committee, whose identities still remain sealed: “You’re on a public mission. You must not act against your conscience.”
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