SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - President Moon Jae-in's administration has come under suspicion of having pushed for a plan to build a nuclear power plant for North Korea in 2018, when Mr Moon held a string of summits with the North's leader Kim Jong-un.
The suspicion came to the surface following the recent disclosure of the prosecution's indictment in December of three officials from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
They were charged with destroying computer documents a day before the Board of Audit and Inspection was to seize them in late 2019.
The state watchdog agency had earlier opened a probe into the closure of an ageing nuclear reactor based on an underestimation of its economic viability.
According to the indictment, the deleted documents, recovered later by BAI officials, included 17 files on plans to build a nuclear power plant in the North and other inter-Korean energy cooperation projects.
The files in question, which were stored in a folder titled "pohjois," a Finnish word meaning "north," were produced May 2-15, 2018.
Mr Moon's first and second summits with Mr Kim were held in late April and late May of the same year, respectively. They met for a third time in September of that year.
The timeline sparked speculation that the Moon government was pushing to build a nuclear power plant in the North on the momentum of the Moon-Kim meetings, in contrast to its policy to phase out nuclear power generation in the South.
Under that policy, which experts call ill-conceived, the Wolsong-1 reactor in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, was shut down in 2019, earlier than scheduled, with the construction of two other reactors having been put on hold since 2017.
The Wolsong-1 reactor's life cycle had been extended by 10 years to November 2022 after the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co spent 700 billion won (S$830 million) repairing it from 2009 to 2011.
The scrapping of the two other reactors' construction would make the 700 billion won already spent on it evaporate.
Many people now seem perplexed or angered by the Moon government's possible bid to build a nuclear power plant in the North while domestically adhering to a nuclear phaseout policy.
In a statement released Friday (Jan 29),Mr Kim Chong-in, the interim leader of the main opposition People Power Party, described the move as a "shocking act benefiting the enemy."
A spokesperson for Mr Moon immediately rebuffed Mr Kim's statement as irresponsible and misleading, pledging to take legal measures against him.
The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said it had reviewed the possibility of building a nuclear power plant in the North just as an idea in preparation for inter-Korean economic cooperation being on track.
But the responses fall far short of explaining why the ministry officials deleted the files in question, along with those related to the early shutdown of the Wolsong-1 reactor, at the risk of being punished for the outright illegal act.
A thorough investigation is needed to find all the facts behind the deletion of the computer documents.
The Moon government appears to have made a hasty attempt to build a nuclear power plant in the North to help carry forward inter-Korean economic cooperation before substantial progress toward the complete dismantling of the recalcitrant regime's nuclear weapons.
If the Moon administration drew up a plan to construct a nuclear power plant in the North, this could be seen as an acknowledgement that nuclear energy is safe and indispensable.
As experts note, it would be sensible to abolish the policy to phase out domestic nuclear power generation before pushing ahead with a reactor project for North Korea.
In the era of what is known as the "fourth industrial revolution," which relies on artificial intelligence, big data marketing and other digital technologies, there will be more demand for electricity.
Efforts to reduce carbon emissions should continue to be strengthened to cope with climate change.
Under these circumstances, it would be nothing less than a self-inflicted injury to discard nuclear power as a reliable source of cheap and clean electricity.
Furthermore, it may be impossible to construct a nuclear power plant in the North even after its nuclear arsenal is dismantled, if the foundation of the South's nuclear industry, which has been built up over the past several decades, is demolished as a result of the Moon administration's misguided policy.
The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.