Moon orders an inquiry into Lee’s four-rivers project

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Moon orders an inquiry into Lee’s four-rivers project

President Moon Jae-in ordered Monday an inquiry into how the Lee Myung-bak administration made decisions in a controversial construction project to improve big rivers in Korea.

Moon ordered an audit into the policy decisions and implementation of the four-rivers restoration project, Kim Su-hyun, senior secretary for social affairs, said Monday. The Board of Audit and Inspection will follow through.

The president also ordered the opening of weirs constructed at Korea’s four major rivers at all times starting in June to prevent green algal blooms ahead of summertime.

As a 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 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 greater algal blooms in the summers. In the worst places, waters of the four major rivers earned the nickname “green latte” due to the algal blooms. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport denied the connection between the project and the blooms.

“It was bulldozed in a hasty way that cannot be seen as normal government administration,” Kim said. “Checks and balances within the government failed, and an abnormal policy decision and implementation were allowed under the justification of initiative and drive.”

He said Moon ordered the outcome of the audit to be published in a white paper to teach a lesson to the future generation about maintaining consistency and balance in decision-making and implementation of a policy.

“Any irregularities and corruption uncovered by the audit will be handled according to the law,” Kim said, indicating that members of the Lee administration could become targets of criminal investigations. But he said, “The audit is not to go after any individual’s irregularities.”

Kim refused to say if former President Lee will be a subject of the audit.

A key campaign pledge by Moon was the eradication of “structural evils” from the past, included predecessor Park Geun-hye’s attempt to bring back state-authored history textbooks, Lee’s four-rivers restoration project, his so-called energy diplomacy and corruption in defense projects.

Since he took office on May 10, Moon issued a series of presidential orders following through on those pledges. He ordered probes into the Park abuse of power scandal and handling of the Sewol ferry’s sinking in 2014 and scrapped her plan to introduce state-penned history textbooks.

The audit will be the fourth inspection into the four-rivers restoration project. The first two were conducted during the Lee presidency in January 2011 and January 2013. While the first largely endorsed the project, the second pointed out problems with water quality management.

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

“Two audits during the Lee presidency were unable to challenge the decision-making itself,” a Blue House official said Monday. “And the audit during Park presidency was mainly on the collusion among construction companies.”

Lee issued a statement Monday to defend the project and criticize Moon’s attempt to reverse one of his legacy achievements.

“The Supreme Court all ruled in favor of the project in four administrative suits filed by opposition parties and environmental groups,” the statement said. It said the project went through three audits and another expert evaluation by the prime minister’s office of the Park administration.

“Instead of making a political fuss by going after a predecessor’s policy, which had been already audited, tried and evaluated, the government must pay more efforts to complete the project and manage the water resources to resolve the upcoming droughts,” it said.

The Moon government will form a team of experts to decide the future of the project. The government will conduct a survey for the next year to study the 16 weirs and quality of waters. Based on the result, the fates of the weirs will be decided by the end of next year.

For the time being, six of the 16 weirs around the country will be opened to allow water flows starting June 1. Operation of the remaining 10 will be decided depending on a study on the ecosystem and water resources management.

Kim also said the Ministry of Environment failed to perform its role in managing the water and protecting the ecosystems. The government will merge the water management functions of the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and put the Environment Ministry in charge.

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

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