State prosecutors are investigating former Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) President and CEO Ha Sung-yong and former Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) chief Chang Myoung-jin over allegations of corruption and dereliction of duty, respectively, in a set of major defense projects.
But not many people seem to believe that the ongoing investigation would be summed up as an investigation into simple corruption and graft cases involving the two figures appointed by former President Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office in March over a massive corruption scandal.
Rather, it is widely seen as the beginning of an investigation into controversial defense projects pushed for by the Park government, including a 7.3 trillion won ($6.48 billion) F-X project and an 8.5 trillion won KF-X project.
In March 2014, under the F-X project, the nation decided to buy 40 F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin as the Republic of Korea Air Force's next-generation fighters. Meanwhile, the KF-X project is designed to develop 4.5-generation indigenous fighters by 2026 to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of F-4s and F-5s.
Those who have been mentioned as key figures in the projects included Kim Kwan-jin, former National Security Office (NSO) chief, Choi Soon-sil, Park's longtime friend who was at the center of the political scandal and subsequently arrested, and Park herself.
The investigation into the former KAI and DAPA heads has begun under the leadership of Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office chief Yoon Seok-youl, who was appointed by President Moon Jae-in in May.
Ha is suspected of pocketing billions of won in illicit gains, while the nation's sole aircraft maker inflated expenses for developing military aircraft, including the Surion utility helicopters and T-50 jet trainers. Chang is suspected of neglecting his duty of supervising KAI, as his administration allowed the firm to resume delivery of the Surion choppers despite a series of defects, including engine problems.
Yoon was one of the main prosecutors for the independent counsel's investigation into the scandal involving the former president. Earlier, Yoon was demoted by the Park administration for conducting the stern investigation into allegations that the National Intelligence Service intervened in the 2012 presidential election to help Park win the presidential election over then-opposition candidate Moon.
Yoon's appointment apparently reflected the Moon government's willingness to eradicate corruption and push for reform.
The expectation for the investigation to expand to larger projects and higher-level figures was fueled by the sheer number _ more than 100 _ of prosecution personnel who have been mobilized for the ongoing probe.
The F-X project was one of the most controversial defense projects pushed for by the Park administration. The Defense Acquisition Program Executive Committee's 2014 decision to choose Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters provoked controversy, as the DAPA initially recommended Boeing's F-15SE as the nation's next generation fighters.
At the time, former NSO chief Kim Kwan-jin served as defense minister and the head of the committee. While making such a controversial decision, Kim told his aides, "We need to make a political decision," according to Rep. An Min-suk of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).
Critics construed Kim's mention of "a political decision" as pressure from the former president.
The decision later caused more enormous controversy, as it was belatedly known that the nation failed to receive four core F-35-related technologies from Lockheed Martin, which are necessary to carry out the KF-X project to develop indigenous fighters.
The nation originally planned to receive technologies related to active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, infrared search and track (IRST), electronic optics targeting pod (EOTGP) and RF jammer from the U.S. defense giant in return for the purchase of the F-35s. But the plan floundered after the U.S. government did not allow the firm to transfer the technologies for security reasons.
Following that hitch, the DAPA said it would develop such technologies domestically, but since then, questions have been consistently raised over why the committee rejected the F-15SE, even though Boeing was more positive in handing over core technologies.
Adding to the controversy was the alleged intervention of Park's friend Choi in the decision-making in the F-X project.
Rep. An alleged late last year that Choi may have illicitly helped Lockheed Martin receive business favors from the Park government and received a commission in return.
The U.S. defense corporation denied this allegation at the time, saying it has never received business favors from the Park government with the help of Choi.
An also identified Linda Kim as a key person who could lead to the truth behind the allegations. Kim was an influential arms lobbyist until the early 2000s and may have been friends with Choi.
On July 18, Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo of the DPK said, "There have been a number of suspicions over the Park government's decision to change the model for the nation's next generation fighters from Boeing's F-15SE to Lockheed Martin's F-35. Thorough investigations are surely necessary." He also stated that the KF-X project should be examined again.