One area where the difference in strategy between the old and new presidents is particularly evident is the attitude towards the role of nuclear power.
It should be recalled that the Moon administration, under the guise of a green agenda, attempted to destroy the country’s nuclear power industry, with the president’s personal “wants” rather than economic considerations behind much of it. Meanwhile, in order to shut down the recently renovated Volson-1 nuclear power plant, data had to be blatantly falsified, while the fascination with all new technology led to a man-made earthquake in Pohang.
But from 2018 to early 2022, the Moon government invested 12 trillion won in an electricity infrastructure fund, collected by allocating 3.7% of households’ payments on electricity bills. All this money was to go towards renewable energy projects.
Unfortunately, it has turned out that renewables can relieve households but not be the basis for industrial growth, plus the energy they generate is too expensive. The attempt to solve the problem with coal-fired power plants has created new environmental problems (Beijing levels of smog).
According to a survey by the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), competitiveness of the industry has fallen by about 30-40% in the five years of Moon Jae-in’s rule, and it may take 2 to 4 years to fully recover. Another 22.6% see a fall of 20-30%. The main industry challenges cited were: staff shortages and attrition (35.7% of respondents), lack of operating funds (30.4%), supply chain disruptions due to bankruptcy of partner firms (17.9%) and failure to deliver next-generation growth technologies (12.5%). Over the past five years, for example, the number of students enrolled in specialized fields of study has fallen by 22% from 2,777 to 2,165.
The nuclear phase-out policy has led to a significant fall in profitability due to low cost efficiency (54.8%), a reduction in personnel skills due to a labor outflow (29%), an end to R&D and a decline both in technology (9.7%) and in supply chain competitiveness (3.2%). The measures needed for the recovery of the industry were: rapid commissioning of new capacity – 46.9%, improvement of licensing and regulatory mechanisms and regulations – 28.1%, easing of the financial burden – 17.2%, and support for struggling companies – 7.8%.
But, as it turned out, that was not all; it was probably not just Moon’s personal views that were behind the collapse of the industry, but also trivial corruption.
On August 19, the Daejeon District Prosecutor’s Office sent prosecutors and investigators to the Presidential Archives to search for documents related to the decision on an early shut down of the Volson-1 reactor in 2019. The Prosecutor’s Office is reportedly investigating whether Moon played any role in connection with the decision to shut down the reactor early.
On August 23, the Audit and Inspection Bureau decided to audit the nuclear phase-out policy. Around the same time, the Prime Minister’s Office for Government Policy Coordination launched its parallel investigation.
The results of the investigations, released on September 13, were that Prime Minister Han Duck-soo was allegedly appalled by the leak in tax spending on solar panels, while President Yoon Suk-yeol called them “deplorable” on September 15, 2022 and suggested legal consequences were necessary.
The news is so unpleasant that the Democratic Party and its controlled media have so far kept mum without their usual talk about politically motivated investigations. On the other hand, the criminal cases have not yet started and it is therefore too early to name specific names, although some conservatives and some investigators hold the ex-President Moon at least symbolically responsible.
The prosecution believes that under the pretext of abandoning nuclear energy and switching to renewable energy sources, Moon Jae-in pushed through a solar energy project that covered up corruption, inflated project costs, illegal loans to loss-making enterprises, etc. Something similar happened with the “natural resources diplomacy” and other infrastructure projects of Lee Myung-bak, on which his fellow Protestant parishioners profited handsomely at public expense.
The other version is more prosaic – as the Moon government promised to increase electricity production from renewable sources by up to 20%, large funds were made available for any projects which had the word “solar” in them. Representatives of the solar energy industry said the embezzlement of public funds had been widely expected since the beginning of the Moon administration – the government had been trying to promote the country’s solar energy industry as fast as it could, and there were many loopholes in government programs that were exploited by corrupt officials. As the media timidly wrote, “as the previous government put strong emphasis on its renewable energy policies, it seems that there was not enough time for municipalities to prepare thoroughly, and in the process of implementing them, cases of poor execution were confirmed on a large scale.” In the end, as Prime Minister Han Dok Su put it, taxpayers’ money has been wasted in a bottomless pit of solar energy projects.
What can be the outcome of the scandal? It is clear that while Yoon intends to return to using nuclear power plants, the focus on renewables will not diminish either. The media notes that South Korea “needs to embrace renewable energy to help deal with the deepening climate change and aim to meet carbon emission reduction targets as a responsible member of the international community. But the previous administration did not listen to critical opinions about its policy’s possible flaws and risks”.
The second aspect of the scandal concerns Moon Jae-in, who is being steadily cornered from all sides. Corruption trials against his associates, stories of “fishkillers” and Lee Dae-jun, and now the serious accusation of condoning damage to the country. It is possible that, on a cumulative basis, Moon will end up as yet another South Korean president to receive a prison sentence.
Meanwhile, on September 19, the ruling party set up a task force to uncover alleged corruption in the spending of public funds, and the Prime Minister said his office planned to formally request an investigation into the matter. The author will, of course, keep an eye on the situation…
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.