The NY Korea Center: A Boondoggle?

Image of the planned New York Korea Center (Image via The Korea Times)

The leadership of the Korean Cultural Center New York has been told that they are wasting money on the project to build the New York Korea Center [Editor’s note: The new building is expected to house the Korean Cultural Center, the Korea Tourism Organization, and the Korean Education Center as well as an auditorium, exhibit space, library, lecture rooms and offices.] near Koreatown on 32nd Street (between Park and Lexington avenues) in Manhattan. Also, the center’s leadership has come under suspicion for awarding work to associates of [former and disgraced president] Park Geun-hye.

Noh Woong-rae, a member of Korea’s National Assembly, said in a press release on Aug. 7 that “the New York Korea Center for spreading and exchanging Korean culture hasn’t received approval to start construction for nine years owing to underground railroad tracks belonging to Amtrak. The land was purchased without checking whether it’s possible to construct or not.”

“As a result, $21 million for purchasing the land and $19 million for construction and supervisory [costs], for a total of approximately $40 million in taxpayer funds was wasted,” Noh insisted. In addition, he said, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism violated budget accounting rules by turning over construction revenues to the Korean Cultural Center, which in its self-evaluation report, stated that 100 percent of their goals for this stage of the project had been achieved. [The center’s report has since been updated.]

Noh pointed out that it became noticeable after Park became president in 2013 that the Korean Cultural Center New York was spoken of as “the playground of Park’s people” and “Director Oh Seung-je, the 14th director of the Korean Cultural Center New York, gave many projects to Song Sung-gak, the former director of the Korea Creative Content Agency. Oh and Song once worked together for the same advertising agency, ‘Cheil Worldwide’,” he added.

In 2015, when Park visited the U.S., the Korean Cultural Center New York planned a traveling exhibit called “New Discovery of Korean Traditional Culture” and awarded a contract of $1 million to Design LAB Associates, which subcontracted to The Mercury Post where Song worked as CEO.  Song was close to Cha Eun-taek, one of the key figures in the Park scandal, Noh insisted.

Noh said, “Government agencies in foreign countries have to be monitored. Also, this New York Korea Center project has to be audited.” However, director Oh refuted Noh’s accusations.

Oh explained in a telephone interview with The Korea Times, “It’s true that the construction has not started because of the insurance problem with Amtrak. But we expect to start it in February 2018, as soon as the deal with Amtrak is closed.” [Editor’s note: Amtrak requires expensive pre-construction insurance and the center is negotiating with Amtrak.]

With respect to the suspicions about who received contracts for projects, Oh said, “At that time, Korean Culture and Information Service contracted with companies, not us. Therefore, we weren’t involved in selecting companies. Also, I didn’t have enough time and the ability to direct this event, because it was my first month at the center.” He dismissed Noh’s insistence on wrongdoing.

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