The state auditor’s latest findings about defects in an indigenous Army helicopter is yet another reminder that it is never easy to end corruption in weapons acquisition programs.
The Board of Audit and Inspection’s findings about the Surion transport utility helicopter -- there are about 60 of them already in operation by the Army -- is indeed scary: It lacks protection from lightning and anti-icing capability, which means it cannot operate normally in winter.
Furthermore, developers of the helicopter have yet to earn government certification for its engine. Some of them even have problems with water leaks. No wonder there have already been several major accidents, including a crash in 2015.
It is truly upsetting that this was what the Korean military got after spending 1.3 trillion won ($1.15 billion) since 2006 on the helicopter program. But what is more troubling is that the Defense Acquisition Program Administration allowed Korea Aerospace Industries to continue to supply the helicopters without fixing the problems.
KAI, the nation’s sole aircraft manufacturer, is already under a corruption investigation by the state prosecution. Among other things, it is suspected of having falsely inflated expenses for the development of military aircraft such as the Surion helicopter and the T-50 supersonic trainer jet.
In 2015, a special audit by the BAI found that the KAI made 24 billion won in illicit gains by faking development costs for the Surion helicopter. It is easy to see why collusive ties between KAI and DAPA are suspected.
As the BAI has asked the prosecution to investigate the chief of DAPA and two other officials, the ongoing probe into the KAI may well expand to the military procurement agency.
Finding out what went wrong and punishing those who were responsible may not be sufficient. The latest scandals show that all the pledges made by the government have gone nowhere.
Every recent administration has vowed to end corruption in defense procurement projects. It was in line with such a promise that the late President Roh Moo-hyun, President Moon Jae-in’s former boss and mentor, established DAPA in 2006.
Disgraced former President Park Geun-hye also put fighting corruption in defense acquisition as a top priority, forming a special investigative unit that included agencies such as the state prosecution, BAI, the military intelligence agency and military prosecution.
But Park installed the wrong people to key posts. KAI CEO Ha Sung-yong is close to members of Park’s inner circle and DAPA head Chang Myoung-jin was Park’s college classmate.
This should offer lessons to Moon, who has already proclaimed that uprooting corruption in military procurement will be one of his top priorities.
It was against this backdrop that Moon’s critics opposed his appointment of Defense Minister Song Young-moo who was found to have received huge amounts in “advisory fees” from defense contractors after his retirement as Navy chief.
The KAI and DAPA scandals show that the president cannot afford any more wrong appointments. Moon should bear in mind that he should not seek any political gains through the investigation into KAI and DAPA.
In the early stages of their terms, Korean presidents tend to exploit investigations into corruption scandals and the policy failures of previous administrations to carry out political vendettas.
As things stand, the BAI has reopened a probe into the four rivers development project of the Lee Myung-bak administration. Moon also said the overseas natural resources development projects should be put under renewed scrutiny as well.
The president said Monday that his administration is reviving a high-level panel on anti-corruption similar to the one installed by Roh in 2004. It is absolutely right to shed light on whatever went wrong in the past, but Moon should be reminded that his predecessors often faced backlash for abusing the prosecution and other powerful agencies.