Speculation is growing about the purpose of presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok’s recent visit to the United Arab Emirates. He visited the UAE and Lebanon from Dec. 9-12 as President Moon Jae-in’s special envoy.
Rumors have swirled that he visited the Middle East “to resolve a diplomatic issue with the UAE over its nuclear reactor project awarded to South Korea.” However, the presidential office’s unconvincing explanations and rebuttals have fueled suspicions rather than cleared them. To calm these controversies, it must disclose the facts clearly and openly.
At the root of the suspicions is why he had to visit the UAE and Lebanon as a special envoy.
Korean newspapers ran a photograph taken Dec. 10 of Im meeting with Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and commander of the UAE Armed Forces, in Abu Dhabi.
In the photo, Khaldoon Khalifa al-Mubarak, chairman of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation of the UAE, was also seen attending the meeting. He is in charge of nuclear power plants in the country.
In December 2009, a South Korean consortium led by Korea Electric Power Corp. won a $40 billion deal to build and operate four nuclear reactors for the UAE.
Among South Korean officials accompanying Im to the meeting in the photo was Suh Dong-gu, the first deputy director of the National Intelligence Service. Suh advised the state-owned utility regarding the UAE project when the government was run by President Lee Myung-bak.
Clearly, the nuclear reactor project might have been mentioned during the meeting.
Chairman al-Mubarak reportedly expressed concerns about problems related to the project due to Moon’s nuclear phase-out policy.
According to rumors revealed by opposition party lawmakers, the Moon administration tried to dig up dirt about the UAE deal, such as details of kickbacks, under its anti-corruption drive against the Lee administration. Crown Prince Mohammed was so enraged at South Korea prying into the deal for irregularities that he considered cutting diplomatic ties with South Korea. So Im was hurriedly dispatched as special envoy to appease his anger and allay concerns about the policy.
The presidential office flatly dismisses the rumors and news media reports relating Im’s visit with the UAE deal. According to Cheong Wa Dae, Im visited Crown Prince Mohammed to strengthen a bilateral partnership “in a broad context.” It said Khaldoon al-Mubarak attended the meeting not as an official in charge of nuclear reactor projects, but as chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority.
Despite the presidential office’s explanations, controversies have not calmed, but seem to be multiplying.
The purpose of the visit that was disclosed appears doubtful. Cheong Wa Dae said on Dec. 10 that he visited the Middle East to encourage Korean troops stationed in the region and pay a courtesy call to leaders of the two countries. But Defense Minister Song Young-moo had been there just about a month earlier. There was no compelling reason for Im to go for further encouragement. A courtesy call would also be out of blue. Whether it is proper for a presidential chief of staff to hold talks with a foreign leader is questionable. It is uncommon for a presidential chief of staff to leave the country just a few days before a state visit, such as Moon’s visit to China last week.
It is also unusual that Cheong Wa Dae disclosed his visit to news media a day after his departure.
The presidential office said the nuclear reactor deal was not mentioned in the meeting, but the denial was less than convincing. It merely described speculations about Im’s Mideast trip as unfounded without giving cogent explanations. Despite reasonable doubt about the officials related to the project in the photo, it keeps silent, citing that nondisclosure is a rule of monarchies.
What is stranger is that Im has gone on vacation from Monday to Thursday this week. His leave will inevitably be seen as a way to avoid a parliamentary committee meeting called by the opposition Liberty Party Korea to question him about his Middle East visit.
Cheong Wa Dae must stop saying it has no further comment and disclose the truth about Im’s visit, or suspicions will inevitably grow.