Gov't energy officials placed in pretrial detention for destruction of evidence
Two government officials were placed under pretrial detention Friday after being accused of purging internal documents related to the early closure of the country's second-oldest nuclear reactor.
The decision by the Daejeon Central District Court to uphold warrant requests filed for two officials from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy effectively greenlit an expanded investigation by the state prosecution agency into the controversial closure of Wolsong-1.
The two officials were among three accused of obstructing the Board of Audit and Inspection's (BAI) inquiry into an audit of operations at the reactor, by allegedly deleting 444 records the ministry was asked to submit. They have not yet been charged with a crime, and prosecutors have not released their names publicly.
A warrant for the third official was not approved, as he already admitted criminal wrongdoing, the court said.
The BAI previously claimed that Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power's (KHNP) 2018 decision to shut down the reactor was based on a faulty assessment that deliberately underestimated the economic advantage of keeping it going.
The Wolsong-1 reactor stopped operating in 2012 after its original 30-year lifespan ended. In 2015, the Park Geun-hye administration decided to spend 700 billion won ($616 million) to extend its life through November 2022. The reactor subsequently resumed operating.
In June 2018, the KHNP abruptly reversed the plan, prompting speculation from opposition politicians of a political decision to accommodate President Moon Jae-in's nuclear phaseout policy. The government permanently shut the reactor on Dec. 24, 2019.
The state prosecution agency is now expected to augment its probe by looking into whether any higher-ups, including former Energy Minister Baek Woon-kyu, meddled with BAI's audit.
The case has the special attention of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, who approved the warrant requests into the Trade Ministry officials a day after he was reinstated to his duties by an administrative court following his suspension by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae.
The top prosecutor's focus on the case, which the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) has been playing up to attack the administration, prompted the ruling Democratic Party (DP) Saturday to accuse Yoon of abusing his power.
"A punitive and politically-motivated investigation is turning the Republic of Korea's civil service on its head," said Rep. Kang Sun-woo, the DP's spokesperson, in a statement on the arrest of the two officials.
"Yoon is neither a decision maker nor the person in charge for energy policy," Kang said, casting the probe as an attempt by an unelected state prosecution service to meddle with the policies of a government chosen by the people.
Kang added the probe provided further justification for launching the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials — a new agency the DP has pushed for as a check on the prosecution.
The opposition PPP, by contrast, welcomed the court decision to issue the arrests, claiming in a statement Saturday the probe into Wolsong-1 was a crisis of the administration's own making.
"An energy policy meant for 100 years was flipped over with one comment from a five-year-term president," said Yoon Hee-suk, the PPP's spokesman.
"Those in power are undermining the BAI's constitutionally guaranteed auditing rights, while the justice minister is embroiled in a court fight with the prosecutor general," he said, calling on prosecutors to investigate higher-up figures in the administration alleged to be involved in the scandal.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]