Aides to GNP frontrunner Lee call for probe into 'fabricated' documents
A messy blame game is rising among the government and two Grand National Party presidential hopefuls over an allegedly manipulated government report on frontrunner Lee Myung-bak's key campaign pledge to build a cross-country canal system.
Construction Minister Lee Yong-seop yesterday unveiled the original 9-page report containing an objective assessment of the economic feasibility of the canal plan. Lee raised allegations that another version of the report unveiled to the media last week may have been produced by Lee's camp to arouse public attention to the project.
The 37-page report stirred controversy due to its bitterly critical arguments that Lee confidants claimed to be intended to damage Lee's flagship campaign pledge.
The minister said he will request police investigation to find out who cooked up the report.
Lee's campaign office immediately called for dismissal of the construction minister and a parliamentary investigation into the government report.
It claimed that the report unveiled yesterday was also fabricated in response to the more controversial one.
Lee's aides suspect that Cheong Wa Dae is pulling the strings in the dispute to attack the most popular presidential candidate, and that Lee's main rival Park Geun-hye's aides may have delivered it to the media.
The National Election Commission said yesterday it would begin an investigation into the report immediately.
"We are planning to confirm why and how the report was made and whether there were intentions to influence elections," said an official of the NEC.
The extensive report was disclosed to the media earlier this month, but the source is still unknown. The report was said to be produced by government agencies including Korea Water Corp. to verify the economic viability of Lee's canal plan.
The dispute first broke out Monday after the Construction Minister told a parliamentary panel that he had never seen the 37-page report disclosed to the public and that the original report was only nine pages.
Amid accusations that Cheong Wa Dae had fabricated the original report to undermine the presidential candidate, Minister Lee submitted the nine-page report to the National Assembly late Tuesday night.
But the second report turned out to be no different in content from the previous report, fanning up suspicions that the minister changed the report to hide Cheong Wa Dae's former fabrication.
Lee's pledge to build a cross-country canal has been emerging as a key issue ahead of the December elections with his foes ratcheting up attacks on the proposal.
"There is a high possibility that the Construction Ministry fabricated the report again as part of Cheong Wa Dae's 'kill Lee Myung-bak' plan," said Park Hyong-joon, spokesperson for the former Seoul Mayor Lee.
"Minister Lee should be dismissed for making false statements to the parliament and deceiving the public. He is no longer eligible as a member of the Cabinet," Park added. "Cheong Wa Dae will deny its involvement in the report, but the truth should be unveiled through a parliamentary investigation."
Lee's camp had previously accused the president of ordering related agencies to produce a negative report on the canal plan, citing reference to a "VIP" who questioned the plausibility of the canal to Uri Party members. This message was allegedly included in the government report on the canal.
Construction Minister Lee denied accusations through a briefing yesterday.
"It is out of the question to fabricate a government document. I have asked the National Police Agency to investigate the case to find out who made the 37-page report and how it had leaked to media," he said.
Minister Lee has been claiming that Lee Myung-bak may have deliberately leaked the 37-page report to bring media spotlight on his canal project.
Apart from the number of pages, the two reports are similar with only slight differences in the estimated business expenses, environmental effects and transportation time.
The nine-page "original" report states that it was produced by the ministry's water resources planning bureau, while the 37-page report says that it was made by a taskforce team. But even the fonts used in the two reports are the same.
Several government officials will face legal charges if either of the reports was made to influence public consensus on Lee's canal plan, as it violates the public servants' obligation to preserve political neutrality.
Lee's project, dubbed the Pan-Korea Grand Waterway, would be 3,100 kilometers long, comprise 17 routes and cross all over South Korea.
The longest canal would be the Gyeongbu Canal, or Seoul-Busan Canal, which would link the Han River in Seoul to the Nakdong River in the southeastern port city of Busan. Construction of the Gyeongbu Canal would take four years and cost 14.1 trillion won ($15.2 billion).
President Roh Moo-hyun has denounced the project as an "empty pledge without a strategy," reasoning that it is economically inefficient and harmful to the environment.
By Shin Hae-in