Former Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Paik Un-gyu on Monday faced potential arrest for his role in the controversial closure of South Korea’s second-oldest nuclear reactor.
The Daejeon District Court on Monday afternoon started an arrest warrant hearing for Paik on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of business following a request from the prosecution on Thursday.
Paik is under investigation for allegedly abusing his authority to negatively influence the viability assessment of Wolsong-1 in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province. The government decided in December 2019 to permanently close the 679-megawatt reactor.
The Board of Audit and Inspection found in October last year that the nuclear reactor’s economic viability was grossly undervalued to support the early closure. The watchdog said it believed Paik had played a major role in causing the assessment to be mishandled.
Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, the state-run body that runs South Korea’s nuclear reactors, cited deteriorating economic viability as its reason for the early closure at a board meeting in June 2018.
This was a stark reversal from its earlier estimate that Wolsong-1 could provide nearly 4 trillion won ($3.57 billion) worth of additional economic benefits if it continued running.
A prosecutorial investigation followed after BAI chief Choe Jae-hyeong told lawmakers that some public officials had “severely resisted” the audit and had caused delays by destroying evidence and giving false testimony.
The disruptions caused the BAI to submit its final report nearly eight months later than the original deadline of Feb. 29.
The former energy minister is also suspected of have taken part in deleting documents related to the reactor, to disrupt the state audit. Two of the three ministry officials involved in the case were arrested in December.
The three officials are accused of destroying 444 files and other materials related to the government’s decision to terminate the operation of the nuclear reactor, just before receiving an order from the BAI late last year to submit them as evidence.
Of the deleted files, 324 were recovered through digital forensic efforts, but 120 could not be recovered.
Paik’s defense reportedly denied most of the charges, adding that he had not known of the three officials’ involvement in deleting official documents.
The former minister told reporters before the arrest warrant hearing that he had carried out all his duties in regards to the nuclear reactor in accordance with the law. He emphasized that people’s safety had been the priority in the decision to close it down.
If Paik is arrested, the prosecution is expected to broaden the scope of its investigation to encompass higher-ranking officials who directed anti-nuclear initiatives, including officials in the Blue House. The decision, expected late Monday, had not been announced as of press time.
The closure of Wolsong-1 was billed as a milestone in President Moon Jae-in’s anti-nuclear initiative. It was the second nuclear reactor in South Korea to close, following the retirement of the Kori-1 reactor in 2017.
The closure also triggered suspicions that a political push may have hampered a fair, comprehensive review of the reactor and a BAI inspection that lasted until October.
The reactor’s closure came back as a hotly debated issue recently after it was reported that some of the deleted files contained information about a potential nuclear power project in North Korea.
The finding raised questions about whether the Moon administration was secretly pushing for a plan to build a nuclear power plant in North Korea, and whether it delivered that proposal to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the April 2018 summit between Moon and Kim.
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org