Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo came under fire Monday after reversing his claim that the government possesses documents to corroborate North Korea's suspected rerouting of income from a joint industrial park for military uses.
The diversion allegation served as the primary grounds for Seoul's decision to pull out from the Gaeseong factory complex last Wednesday. Since the district's establishment in 2004, South Korean cash totaling 616 billion won (S$709 million) has been transferred mainly to pay salaries to North Korean workers, Hong said.
"Some parts involving numbers were misrepresented. It was partially my fault, I wasn't talking about evidence but meant to explain in detail about our concerns," Hong said at a meeting of the parliamentary foreign affairs and unification panel.
Asked if he was speaking based on circumstantial assumptions without evidence, he conceded, saying: "I've never stated that there were certain materials or evidence but did say that such concerns have been raised."
But the testimony ran counter to his previous remarks. Appearing on a KBS show on Sunday, the minister reiterated that "there were various concerns and related materials" but cannot disclose them because of intelligence matters.
He even newly unveiled that about 70 per cent of the Gaeseong proceeds was "confirmed through various channels" to have been funneled into two offices run by the ruling Workers' Party to fund its nuclear and missile programs.
Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee also said that the government has been monitoring through various channels and analysing signs of the Gaeseong wages being siphoned off but refused to elaborate.
"There have been concerns that the Gaeseong park wages were redirected for developing weapons of mass destruction. However, the international community has acknowledged the significance and effectiveness of the industrial park. You should look at it in that aspect," he said during a news briefing earlier in the day.
Hong's flip-flop came as skepticism continues to grow regarding the legitimacy of the decision to shut down the factory park and the administration's rationale.
While the businesses operating in Gaeseong face bread-and-butter problems at hand, opposition lawmakers and experts demand sources of information, alleging a leap in logic and arguing that if the government does have proof, it would mean that it has in effect breached international resolutions banning support for Pyongyang's illicit military projects.
"It's inconceivable he is now insisting that he has not claimed to have the documents," Kim Yeon-chul, a unification studies professor at Inje University, wrote on Facebook following the session.
"It us already apparent that the government did not have the data, as seen through Hong's inconsistent remarks during last week's news conferences. Even if there are indeed diversion 'allegations,' there is a strict strategic asset control regime based on international law."