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PSPD  l  People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

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  • 2002.08.24
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"F-X" is a contracted form of "Fighter X", which is a code-name for the next-generation fighter jet acquisition project initiated by the Korean air force. The four major candidates for the 4 trillion won contract are the U.S.’s Boeing F-15K, France’s Dassault Rafale, Russia's Su-37, and the Eurofighter Typhoon proposed by a European consortium.

Recently the project got mired in suspicions about external pressure, and controversy over fairness erupted. The evaluation team has reportedly been under strong pressure to favor the U.S. government-backed F-15K of Boeing, even though it is inferior to other contenders in every criterion, including performance and life-cycle cost. Moreover, it is suspected that the evaluation standards have been revised to minimize score gaps among the competitors, which would benefit the U.S. bidder.

Persistent Pressure from U.S. Top Officials to Purchase the F-15

In fact, this is not the first time that U.S. pressure has been an issue. Controversy over the problem has been heating up since the F-X project got into gear in 2000. Two presidents of the United States took the lead. Former President Bill Clinton said "We'd like Korea to purchase the F-15 in consideration of the U.S.-Korea alliance" at the APEC summit held in November 2000. President George W. Bush also said "We hope that the Korean air force will buy Boeing's F-15 to secure the efficiency of U.S.-Korean joint military operations" at the summit talk with President Kim Dae-jung held in Washington on March 7, 2001. In particular, the main agenda item of the summit meeting between President Kim and President Bush was to coordinate the two countries' different views on North Korean issues. Thus, President Bush's remark could well be translated as "otherwise, we wouldn't support your position on North Korea."

Pressure from the U.S. continued. At the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in 2001, U.S. Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith called on Seoul to buy Boeing fighters, saying "the F-X project is important not only for Korea but for the United States. I think that Boeing's F-15K is a very good aircraft, given its interoperability and performance." Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stressed "the importance of ensuring compatibility between South Korean and U.S. forces," though he didn't mention directly the procurement project. Meanwhile, one of the most influential political figures, Missouri Senator Christopher Bond - Missouri is where the F-15 production plant is located - uttered an implicit threat, saying "If the F-15 is not selected, unfortunate results may follow." In addition, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Senate Leader Richard Gephardt, and former Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering joined in the promotion efforts. This is far beyond the level of "sales diplomacy." It is notable that these statements are not grounded on solid reasons like cost-effectiveness and superior capability, but on the Korea-U.S. alliance. This is nothing less than saying "if you buy fighters from another country, it will hamper U.S.-Korea relations."

The bigger problem though is the attitude of the Korean high-ranking officials, including the Defense Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister, toward this undue pressure. During the SCM in question, the Defense Minister replied, the "Korea-U.S alliance will be a crucial factor in the F-X project." His remark has been constantly criticized in the controversy over fairness. After a press release in which Powell urged the Foreign Affairs Minister to purchase the F-15, he appeared in an interview and flatly denied the allegation. However, other related officials testified "the pressure existed." This "pro-Americanism" among high-ranking Korean officials, along with pressuring statements from the U.S. government and politicians, embroiled the F-X project in a controversy over fairness from the initial stage.

Air Force Evaluation Team Leader Exposes External Pressure

The controversy over the project reached its peak when Colonel Cho Ju-hyung, the former leader of the air force evaluation team in the F-X project, disclosed in a TV interview early in March that his team was pressured to favor Boeing's model. He claimed that the Defense Deputy Minister for acquisition told his team that if the F-15K was not selected, the United States could withdraw troops from Korea.

Colonel Cho is recognized as one of the top specialists in fighter jets within the air force. He worked for more than ten years as a researcher on fighter technology, and at the time that he had the interview, he was the director of the T-15 (advanced trainer) development project, and supervising the development of the so-called Korea-type fighter, A-50. He is one of the few fighter pilots who have flied high-technology fighters like the Rafale, Eurofighter, and Su-37, all of which are the world's leading new models.

Colonel Cho was arrested by the Defense Security Command (DSC) right after the interview, on charges of leaking military secrets. Because it was difficult to apply the charge of information leakage on the grounds of his interview only, the military intelligence agency investigated and found that he received 11 million won from a local agent for Dassault Aviation, who was once in the air force and familiar with Cho. In the end, the DSC detained Cho on charges of taking bribes and leaking military secrets. As a result, citizens who were angered by Cho's disclosure got puzzled and began to question the motives and reliability of his testimony.

Before long, however, opinions formed that Colonel Cho's bribery case and the allegation of external pressure should be dealt with separately. It seems unlikely that he can avoid the charge since he himself confessed taking money and the money surely was related to his job. On the other hand, there remains some uncertainty that makes it hard to believe that he fabricated the interview in return for the money. First, he is a man of fortune with 2 billion won of inherited wealth, and 11 million won is a relatively small amount of money to be used as a bribe to influence a 4 trillion won project. His colleagues say, "Considering his personality and behavior so far, he would be the last man to leak key information to a particular company in exchange for 10 million won." It is reported that the DSC has not yet proved he actually gave a particular bidder classified information concerning the selection process in return for the bribe." After sufficient debate, the PSPD's Whistle-blowers Protection Body decided to acknowledge Cho as a whistle-blower despite his taking a bribe, and provide him full support, acknowledging the importance and benefit that his disclosure may bring to the common good.

Defense Ministry Pressures the Evaluation Team to Favor the F-15

Between 2000 and 2001, before submitting the final proposal on February 2002, each competitor for the contract of the F-X project went through in-flight tests and negotiations about technology transfer. In the field tests, Rafale earned the highest mark, followed by the Eurofighter, F-15, and Su-35. Rafale outscored the other models in all of the ten evaluation categories. Colonel Cho, then the leader of the evaluation team, summarized the competition as "the next-generation 'digital' fighter jet (Rafale) versus the 'analogue' fighter developed in the 70's (F-15K)".

Besides combat capability, long-term maintenance support and technology transfer were among the most significant concerns. The U.S. air force will employ the F-15 only until 2030, and therefore, follow-up support from Boeing after 2030 is unlikely. Also, the U.S. air force has already given up further purchase or upgrade of the old models. Thus, it is improbable that the model has any potential to be developed further. Moreover, with all these critical disadvantages of the F-15K as an outmoded model, Boeing was not inclined to transfer the core technology.

Results of the field tests became a hot potato. At the briefing session on the multi-trillion won arms procurement project, which was held in the aftermath of the Linda Kim scandal in 2000, the Defense Ministry proclaimed the principle of transparency and fairness, and kept emphasizing it throughout the whole evaluation process. Apparently, the F-15 stood to lose the deal. According to Cho, most of the pressure from the ministry centered on those periods when the evaluation team was preparing reports on the test results. At that time, Cho claimed, the ministry official in charge of the whole project directed the evaluation team to take out some parts which were unfavorable to the F-15 from the report to be submitted to the National Assembly, and not to demand too much technology transfer from bidders (Boeing was reluctant to transfer key technology - ed.).

Unfair Evaluation Method

After completing in-flight tests and negotiations on technology transfer, the Defense Ministry revealed the final evaluation criteria and methods to select the successful bidder in January 2002. According to the ministry's announcement, the selection process would be two-staged. The first stage examines four categories: (1) acquisition and upkeep costs (35.33%), (2) combat capability (34.55%), (3) interoperability with existing weapons systems (18.13%), and (4) technology transfer and other contract terms (11.99%). If the differences between the top candidate and the runner-up are within three percentage points, the competition will continue and enter the next phase.

The second stage considers three factors: national security (Korea-U.S. joint operation and strategic cooperation), international relations (peace-keeping on the Korean Peninsula), and implications for the overseas market (balance of exports and imports). What draws criticism is that those three factors will be considered on "political" grounds only. Given the Korea-U.S. alliance, the F-15K naturally stands the best chance of winning the contract.

※ Method of Selection Announced by the Defense Ministry on Jan. 3, 2002

△ Selection process divided into two stages

△ Weight on Categories, 1st Stage

Category Weight (%) Sub-category Weight (%)

Sum 100.00 Sum 100.00

Cost 35.33 Acquisition /Maintenance cost 35.33

Combat capability 34.55 Air-to-air capability 17.275

Air-to-surface capability 17.275

Interoperability 18.13 General Munitions Support 11.44

Operational efficiency 6.69

Technology transfer/Contract terms 11.99 Core technology transfer 5.51

Fostering of the local aerospace industry 1.97

Negotiation trade-offs 1.97

Contract terms 2.54

△ 3% margin: if the score gaps between the top candidate and the runner-up is less than 3 % points in the first stage, those two enter the second stage.

△ Categories, 2nd Stage

Category Sub-category

Effects on the Korea-U.S. security issue Sharing expense for U.S. Forces in Korea Effects on military cooperation

Effects on international relations Securing peace on the Korean Peninsula

Implications on overseas market Trade balance against related countries

Immediately, these evaluation methods stirred disputes over fairness. During the negotiation session in 2001, the air force clearly stated in its proposal to the bidders that priorities would be given to categories of combat capability, technology transfer, and negotiation trade-offs. Now, after all the tests and negotiations, the evaluation standards were revised, with focus shifted from technology transfer to cost. It was only natural that the European contenders complained, "How could the evaluation criteria be changed after all the evaluations were completed?" Some maintained the ministry's move was made in a bid to favor Boeing, whose sole competitive edge was cost.

In January 2002, amid heated controversy, each contender submitted their final proposal. The results were unexpected. Rafale turned out to have offered a much lower cost than Boeing. If there were some forces influencing Korea to select the F-15K, this result must have been embarrassing to them. The F-15K was now inferior to its rival in every aspect, including combat capability, technology transfer, and cost.

Then, the Ministry of Defense sent a document to the evaluation institutions, which also contributed to raising suspicions over the fairness issue. The document ordered the evaluation teams to set the grade range from 60 to 100 points, instead of zero to 100 points. That is, every bidder would get at least 60 points in every category. This method might justifiably be applied in categories like weapons and equipments where both Rafale and Boeing have something to offer. However, when it comes to the category of technology transfer, it is a matter of 'yes or no'. Giving 60 points to a bidder that offers nothing is simply absurd. Moreover, such changes in the assessment method were not announced clearly before the contenders handed in their final proposal to the ministry. In many ways, it is highly suspected that the ministry took that measure in favor of the F-15K, which was much less competitive than its French rival.

Defense Ministry Selects the F-15, Disregarding Calls for a Probe

After Colonel Cho's disclosure of external pressure and the Defense Ministry's unreasonable revision of evaluation criteria made headlines, there was a surging demand from the public for a thorough investigation into the F-X project. Civic groups claimed the selection process should be provisionally put on hold - results of the first round of appraisal were scheduled to be announced by late March - until suspicions of undue pressure and favoritism are cleared. They went on to urge the Assembly to exercise its investigative power to probe into the matter. However, the government pushed for the process anyway, ignoring the public outcry.

The Defense Ministry revealed the results of the first stage evaluation on March 27. The announcement was very brief. "In the first stage evaluation for the F-X project, preliminary assessment results from the four evaluation institutions were combined on March 23. Since the score gap between Rafale and the F-15K was within a 3 percent margin, the selection process will enter its second stage.” As mentioned before, the second stage is surely slanted toward Boeing. According to the ministry's brief report, the highest scorers by categories are as follows: (1) life-cycle cost (35.33%), Su-35 (Russia); (2) technology transfer and other contract terms (11.99%), Rafale (Dassault, France); (3) interoperability (18.13%), F-15K (Boeing, the U.S.); and (4) combat capability (34.55%), data omitted. ("Methods like a war-game were employed to assess the capability of each competitor, but the results are not included in the report, in consideration of the sensitivity of the issue.")

The Ministry didn't explain how the differences between Rafale and F-15K were within a 3 percent margin, and didn't reveal details on marks earned by each contender in different categories. The ministry's move was virtually to award the contract to Boeing, without providing solid grounds to back that decision. This spurred a backlash from the public and further amplified suspicions about the F-X project.

Then came a news report that quoted a Ministry official as saying the "F-15K was ahead of Rafale by 3 percentage points in the interoperability category", which raised fresh suspicions that the marks earned by the contenders were actually manipulated. Obviously, if Rafale were behind by as much as 3% points in a single category, it would be impossible to outscore F-15K by more than a 3 percent margin in total, even if Rafale did better than F-15K in every other category. The problem is that the category of interoperability, which was examined by the air force evaluation team, didn't allow that much of a score gap. Colonel Cho, as if he had anticipated this situation, already had observed the following in his taped testimony. "The evaluation method to measure the interoperability was confirmed in the policy conference of the air force in January 2002. According to the formula, the Rafale and F-15K earned pretty much the same marks. But then, a senior Ministry official pressured the air force to give the F-15K a margin of more than 2% points. That was possible only through fabrication of marks earned by each competitor." To summarize, Cho maintained that there had been pressure from the Ministry to slant the evaluation results in favor of the F-15K. His allegation was consistent with, and supported by, the news release in question.

Flaming Anti-American Sentiment

Former Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil, who played a key role, along with former President Park Jung-hee, in the military coup of 1961, said in a recent interview "we must choose the F-15K for the sake of Korea-U.S. joint defense." His claim seems to represent the idea of most of the high-ranking officials in the nation. However, they fail to notice, or deliberately ignore, that "the atmosphere is no longer what it was like before." People are expressing strong opposition to the U.S. government, which has been forcing Seoul to purchase its old weapons on the basis of the Korea-U.S. military alliance. Anti-Americanism here has been fueled by a series of events since last year: cases of civilian massacres by the U.S. military during the Korean War, crimes committed by the U.S. soldiers stationed in Korea, environmental pollutants leaked from their camp, and their overbearing and irresponsible attitude toward those problems. Recently, there has been the U.S. government's unilateral posture after the September 11 attack, and the "axis of evil" remark. Through Bush's visit to Korea in February 2002, it has been demonstrated that the anti-American sentiment is shared not only by some anti-American activists but by the general Korean public. Most of the civic groups in the nation participated in the campaign protesting Bush's visit, which gained full support from the Korean public. It was at this point that suspicions about the F-X project erupted. Anti-American sentiment was taken to its highest level in years when the government announced its virtual selection of F-15K, turning a deaf ear to public opinion.

Civic groups and netizens have forcefully carried out a systematic opposition movement all along. Right after the announcement of the evaluation results, objections came flooding into the Defense Ministry's web site until it was shut down. In a press conference on March 27, civic groups raised suspicions that the evaluation methods and results were manipulated. They demanded that the second-phase evaluation should be stopped, and detailed information on the first-stage evaluation should be disclosed immediately (Mar. 28). They went on to call for a meeting with the chairman of the National Defense Committee (Mar. 29) along with monitoring of the committee conference (Apr. 2, 10), and filed petitions for audit of the project (Apr. 1, 2). To enhance the efficiency of the movement, a coalition body was needed. Accordingly, on April 3, 279 nationwide civic groups had a press conference and launched the "Action Coalition for a Probe into the F-X Project and Revocation of the Virtual Selection of the F-15K (coalition, hereafter). The coalition staged the "Grand Citizen's Rally" in front of the War Memorial in Yongsan (Apr. 10), and the Ministry of Defense building (Apr. 17). It also led cyber demonstrations (from Mar. 28 onward) and signature campaigns on the street (from Apr. 1 onward). However, on April 19, the Defense Ministry released the result of the 2nd stage evaluation as scheduled, announcing the F-15K as the final winner of the contract. The 2nd round of the evaluation was literally a nominal process with a foregone conclusion. At 2 o'clock on the same day, the coalition held a demonstration against the decision in front of the Defense Ministry building. Now the only process left was the presidential authorization of the deal. Requesting the President to take courage and say no, the coalition began a single person demonstration and staged another protest rally in front of the Bunhe temple near the Chongwadae (Apr. 30). On May 4, it also held the "People's Assembly Protesting the Disgraceful F-X Project" at Independence Park in the West-Gate area. On May 9, 8 members of civic groups were arrested in attempting to beat Sinmungo in front of Chongwadae (a drum introduced in the Chosun dynasty to offer commoners the opportunity to be heard and directly appeal to the King.) The same day, over 1,000 complaints were posted on Chongwadae's web site.

President approves the F-15K, but the struggle continues

Nevertheless, the President didn't say, "No." On May 28, he accepted the petition of approval submitted by the Defense Minister, putting aside all the suspicions and controversies involving the procurement project. Through successive rallies, the coalition vehemently protested against the decision, contending the authorization should not take effect unless every suspicion is cleared. People's resentment mounted still further as the investigations into the case of lobbyist Choi Kyu-sun revealed circumstances that he was also involved in the F-X project. Defense Minister Kim Dong-sin and the President's son Kim Hong-gul are suspected of being implicated in Choi's illegal lobbying acts.

Demands resonated that the President should step down because by approving F-15K, he surrendered sovereignty. Condemnations of the Bush administration erupted for forcing the arms purchase. On May 29, sheets containing 80,000 signatures collected through online and off-line campaigns thus far were burned in front of Chongwadae in a mournful spirit.

Meanwhile, the trial of Colonel Cho proceeded swiftly. The indictment was issued two days before the evaluation results were announced (Mar 27), and three trials followed. On June 27, the military prosecution demanded a 5-year sentence for Cho on charges of accepting bribes and divulging military and official secrets. On July 10, Cho was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment, and the term was later reduced to one and a half years by the air force Chief of Staff. The judge dismissed the defendant's arguments that "the allegedly leaked information had, in fact, already been publicized by the press, and they were strategically presented during the negotiation session, and also, the monetary gifts he received were unlikely to have been intended to induce a compensation."

It is obviously unfair that Colonel Cho, who raised the suspicions of manipulation against the Defense Minister, was tried in a military court, which is under the jurisdiction of the Defense Minister.

Is the F-X project closed by the President's approval and Cho's sentence? Certainly not. People's struggle against the project continues. Additional negotiations about the purchase of the F-15K are not finished yet. The filed petitions calling for audits are still valid, and investigations into Minster Kim Dong-sin and Deputy Minister for acquisition Choi Dong-jin are underway. Colonel Cho will go on struggling in court. The incoming administration may hold a hearing on the project. PSPD is ready for every possibility. We believe the truth will be revealed eventually. Nothing is closed yet.

Lee Taeho (Director for the Policy and Planning Committee, PSPD)
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