Board of Audit and Inspection Chairman Choe Jae-hyeong said public officials must observe legal procedures, even when carrying out a presidential election pledge.
He stated the obvious, but his words sound fresh, considering that the presidential office, the government and the ruling party have often behaved unreasonably when it comes to the president’s campaign promises.
In a session of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly on Monday, Choe said it is not right to implement a presidential campaign promise by any means necessary, fair or foul.
He also said that public officials must perform their jobs transparently in accordance with the procedures set forth by law.
His remarks were a response to a ruling party lawmaker’s criticism that if the board judges a government policy by the yardstick of law and probes it, public officials will run short of latitude to work.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea has criticized the board’s inspection of public officials in connection with the shutdown of the Wolsong-1 nuclear power plant. The plant was closed under President Moon Jae-in’s campaign promise and policy to wean the nation from nuclear energy, but officials with the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy are suspected of having manipulated its economic feasibility to shut it down. The prosecution’s investigation is underway. The party criticizes the board for abusing its authority and the prosecution for investigating the case with political intent.
The board did not look into the policy or the election pledge itself, but asked whether the evaluation of the plant’s economic feasibility, the basis of the shutdown decision, proceeded properly.
And yet the party has falsely criticized the board for taking issue with Moon’s election pledge. Another lawmaker regarded as one of Moon’s confidants condemned the board’s audit and the prosecution’s investigation as a frontal attack on democracy. They cloud the issue.
The audit found that several officials had made false statements to inspectors and destroyed evidence, and the prosecution indicted some of them.
The party argues that public officials cannot do their jobs properly if a government policy is judged by the standards of law. This is sophistry. The reason they could not perform their jobs properly was not that the board judged the policy, but that those in power who are above working-level officials weighed them down.
After learning through hearsay that Moon asked one of his aides when Wolsong-1 would be closed, the trade, industry and energy minister reportedly said, “Do you want to die?” to a midlevel official who reported a plan to operate the reactor for two more years on the basis of the outcome of an economic feasibility study. The ministry officials involved in the plant shutdown had to manipulate feasibility numbers to close it right away.
Cheong Wa Dae, the ruling party and high-ranking officials loyal to Moon sometimes went too far to actualize his election pledges at any cost -- no matter how absurd or unrealistic. As a consequence, public opinion opposing a campaign promise was ignored, and procedures were flouted. The validity of a policy and compliance with procedures did not matter. Whether related agencies or officials are on their side or not mattered. Not a few public officials who tried to stick to procedures were relegated to minor posts, while obedient figures were promoted to major posts.
The ruling party argues that Moon’s nuclear phaseout policy is an act of the state and so is beyond any judgment. This argument smacks of totalitarianism. Just because Moon made an election pledge and argues that it is an act of the state does not mean that procedural illegalities can be condoned. An act of the state must not be a pretext for exemption from legal responsibility. It is all the more so because energy is an important policy area that affects the whole nation over the long term.
Even an election pledge must be revised or scrapped if it would damage the national interests. Implementing it by hook or by crook goes against the rule of law. That is an attack on democracy. The top auditor’s remarks are right from every point of view.