Hoisted on his own petard
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The controversy over some kind of proposal to build a nuclear power plant for North Korea involves two main issues. One involves the basic question, “Is it possible that officials of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy worked hard on a report about such a plan and later deleted it without an order from the Blue House?” The ministry claims it did the work on its own — believe it or not. The other question involves the Blue House’s rebuttal — What’s wrong with the plan? — even if President Moon Jae-in and the government had deliberated on it. They say the idea of building a light-water nuclear reactor in North Korea has been pursued since the Kim Young-sam administration.
The two questions can be easily solved through investigations, and it is not the time for the Blue House and ruling and opposition parties to get bogged down in fierce political wrangling over the controversy.
To answer the first question, bureaucrats would have to be unwaveringly loyal. They also would have to have strong confidence in one another so as not to allow any betrayal. To pursue a study of such a scale and controversial nature, they should have had the conviction that they would not be punished if anything went wrong. But such a mood is unimaginable in the bureaucratic community these days.
A retired ministry official said the mood changed dramatically since then. Few would blindly believe and follow orders even if their higher-level officials promised to look after their backs. Therefore, it does not make sense that a working-level official in the ministry and his colleagues voluntarily worked on a North Korea project without an order from a boss.
The atmosphere at the ministry has gotten worse these days. Instead of protecting his subordinates, the energy minister admitted the deletion of the sensitive files in the middle of the night was wrong. Each ministry employee who was involved in the early shutdown of the Wolseong-1 reactor and charged with committing irregularities in the process has recruited lawyers for their defense. It would be common for a single legal team to represent the defendants in the same case, but the fact that they’re going alone suggests each has a different story to tell. Some would have followed orders from above and others not. Government officials are complaining that they are taking the blame for the president.
On the second question, South Korea can, of course, help North Korea with nuclear energy. But that must be conditioned on complete denuclearization and bring some benefit to South Korea’s reactor industry. If these conditions are met, both the cause and effect can be justified. Past conservative governments’ ideas were not challenged, as the conditions were unquestioned. But the case with the Moon administration is different. Moon does not mention denuclearization at all. He keeps saying that dialogue with North Korea is all that matters even after Pyongyang blew up the inter-Korean liaison office and shot and burned the body of a South Korean fisheries official in the West Sea.
Moreover, Moon’s thoughts on nuclear reactors are contradictory. In June 2017, he declared that nuclear reactors are unsafe, pricey to build and environmentally dangerous. In the following year, he met with the Czech prime minister to pitch South Korea’s excellent reactor technology, saying there had not been a single accident during South Korea’s nuclear reactor operations over 40 years.
A commercial nuclear reactor can bring the two Koreas together. If the issue is caught in political wrangling, the nuclear plant card could be lost forever. All this trouble stems from Moon’s policy to phase out nuclear energy. The phase-out policy has complicated the government goal to achieve carbon neutrality and address fine dust issues too.
Seoul can hardly pursue a reactor project for North Korea as a result of its phase-out policy. The consequences of a leader’s misguided vision can be this damaging. It is not too late for the president to undo the harm. He could scrap his nuclear phase-out policy and build a reactor in North Korea in return for denuclearization. That makes sense.