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Blue House changes story on murky UAE trip

Dec 22,2017
Opposition parties are threatening a parliamentary investigation into the presidential chief of staff’s unusual visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as the Blue House replaces one dubious explanation with another.

President Moon Jae-in sent chief of staff Im Jong-seok to the UAE and Lebanon from Dec. 9 to 12. Im was accompanied by senior officials including the vice minister of defense and the first deputy director of the National Intelligence Service.

The Blue House initially gave a lengthy, emotional explanation that Im made his journey to cheer up Korean troops dispatched to the two Middle Eastern countries, but suspicions grew because the minister of defense visited those troops just last month.

The Blue House changed its explanation to say that Im had to make an urgent visit because there was a need to steady bilateral relations with the UAE, but refused to say why.

It maintained the position that a nuclear power plant deal was not discussed by Im and the leader of the UAE, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

“The Blue House is now saying that bilateral ties with the UAE were strained during the Park Geun-hye administration so it had to urgently send Im to restore the relations and strengthen cooperation,” Rep. Kim Sung-tae, floor leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, said Thursday.

“The key is that the Moon administration faced a threat from the UAE to cut diplomatic ties and a crisis in the nuclear plant project because it was caught investigating the UAE’s royal family’s dealings with former President Lee Myung-bak, during whose term Korea won the massive nuclear plant contract,” Kim claimed. “If there is nothing to hide, Im must attend a National Assembly House Steering Committee hearing.

“We are issuing an ultimatum to the Blue House to tell the truth,” Kim said.

The Liberty Korea Party is mulling a parliamentary investigation into Im’s trip. The party’s Rep. Yoon Sang-jick demanded such a probe on Wednesday.

“The first deputy director of the National Intelligence Service had no choice but to accompany Im because an agent in the UAE probably did something wrong,” Yoon said. “We need a parliamentary investigation.”

Yoon served as presidential secretary for knowledge economy and vice minister of knowledge economy during the Lee presidency.

He also served as minister of trade, industry and energy during the Park Geun-hye administration, spending much of his career overseeing the country’s energy policy, including exports of nuclear plant technology.

In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo, Yoon said it is suspicious that Suh Dong-gu, the first deputy director of the National Intelligence Service, attended Im’s meeting with the crown prince.

Stressing that there was no problem in the nuclear plant project until he left the energy ministry, Yoon said, “If there were problems, the energy minister should have paid a visit, not the presidential chief of staff.” The Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) won an $18.6 billion deal in 2009 to build the UAE’s first nuclear plant.

Kepco is building four 1,400-megawatt reactors simultaneously, the world’s largest single nuclear project. Kepco won another bid in 2016 to operate the Barakah plant. The deal is expected to bring $49.4 billion in revenue to Kepco over the 60-year contract period.

The People’s Party and the Bareun Party also demanded the Moon administration tell the truth, criticizing the Blue House for its implausible explanations.

The JoongAng Ilbo reported Thursday that the trip was made at the request of the UAE, quoting a senior associate of Moon.

According to the source, the UAE asked for a special envoy and set the date. Moon made a direct order that one of three chiefs at the Blue House – Chief of Staff Im, Security Office Chief Chung Eui-yong or Policy Office Chief Jang Ha-sung - must go.

“Shortly after the date set for the UAE trip, Moon was taking a state visit to China,” the source said.

“Therefore, Im, who was not accompanying Moon to China, was sent to the UAE.”

The source said there was a reason why a presidential chief had to go, but refused to elaborate. “The main goal was urgent improvement of the bilateral relations,” he said.

Because the trip was arranged in a hurry at the request of the UAE, the Blue House could not even arrange seats on the plane so Im and his entourage could sit next to each other, he said.

“Such an urgency means there was something we had to take care of before this year ends,” the source said. “But the visit was concentrated more on improving relations with the UAE, not specific issues such as the nuclear power plant project or arms exports.”

The Blue House later said the UAE did not set the date, but refused to discuss other details of the trip.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]