The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in became embroiled in a bitter feud with opposition politicians this week after a news report purportedly revealed a secret proposal to build a nuclear power plant in North Korea.
The controversy began with an investigation into South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy officials accused of illegally destroying documents related to inter-Korean cooperation on energy projects in 2019. Three ministry officials were indicted last month for destroying hundreds of documents right before government auditors requested them in December 2019.
On Thursday, the Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) broadcast a bombshell report that revealed previously secret details from the indictments of the three ministry officials. Among those details was the revelation that some of the documents they destroyed concerned the shutdown of Wolsong-1, the second-oldest nuclear reactor in South Korea.
The permanent closing of Wolsong-1 in December 2019 was part of President Moon’s push to move away from nuclear energy. South Korea has 25 operational nuclear reactors, which supply a third of the country’s electricity. Wolsong-1, which was brought online in 1983, had been offline for years and was reaching the end of its optimum service lifespan, but the Moon administration decided to decommission it several years ahead of schedule, rather than bringing it back online for another ten years, as initially recommended by South Korea’s nuclear safety commission.
South Korea’s opposition People Power Party (PPP) charged that Wolsong-1 was shut down for purely political reasons, due to the left-wing Moon’s antipathy for nuclear power, inflicting unjustified costs on the Korean public and wasting hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the previous administration to keep the plant running until late 2022.
The PPP eventually filed a criminal complaint against the ministers who ordered the plant decommissioned, accusing them of abusing their authority and destroying government documents to protect themselves. After investigating for over a year, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) concluded that hundreds of documents were indeed deleted improperly to obstruct its investigation, a conclusion the Moon administration rejected as “unprecedented” and “nonsensical.”
The SBS report on Thursday took the controversy to a new level by revealing that some of the destroyed documents concerned a previously secretive project to build a nuclear reactor in North Korea.
One of those documents was a report literally entitled “North Korean Nuclear Power Plant Construction Implementation Plan,” which appears to have been written shortly after President Moon met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in April and May 2020.
The precise details of this plan are apparently unknown, since the report was destroyed by the officials under indictment but, evidently, it would have involved building a nuclear plant in North Korea as part of the inter-Korean energy cooperation initiative, perhaps with the notion of using some of its output to defray the loss of power from decommissioned South Korean reactors.
PPP leader Kim Chong-in on Thursday denounced the alleged reactor plan as “a shocking and appalling act that abets the enemy.”
A spokesman for President Moon shot back that Kim’s comments were “irresponsible” and intended to “deceive” voters ahead of legislative elections in April. The spokesman insisted that Kim should “take responsibility for his comment,” but conspicuously refused to answer questions about whether the plan to build a nuclear plant in North Korea was real, and if Moon’s office had ordered the indicted ministers to destroy the plan.
As of Friday morning, key details of the SBS report have not been verified by other sources, and the prosecutors handling the case of the ministers indicted for destroying documents have not commented on the growing controversy.