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Court denies arrest warrant for ex-minister

Mar 26,2019
이미지뷰
Reporters rain questions on Kim Eun-kyung, environment minister from July 2017 through November 2018, as she enters the Seoul Eastern District Court on Monday to attend a detention warrant hearing. [WOO SANG-JO]
A Seoul court refused a prosecution request early Tuesday for a warrant to arrest a former environment minister on charges that she abused her power by forcing those considered critical of the incumbent administration to step down from their posts.

The Seoul Eastern District Court ruled that Kim Eun-kyung, who headed the Ministry of Environment from 2017 to 2018, presents no risk of flight or destroying evidence given her current status as a retired public official and the prosecution appears to have obtained sufficient evidence.

Kim on Monday attended a detention warrant hearing at the court as a suspect in a widening investigation over a blacklist of officials and jobs offered to associates of the president.

“I will do my best to explain my position and wait for the court’s judgment,” she said before entering the courthouse.

It was the first time that any member of President Moon Jae-in’s cabinet, past or present, attended a court hearing over a detention warrant.

The prosecution has been investigating suspicions that officials at public companies and institutions under the supervision of the Environment Ministry were forced to step down to create vacancies for Moon associates. The prosecution is investigating allegations that the Blue House was not only aware of the practice but also behind it.

The Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office applied for the warrant to detain Kim on Friday on charges that she abused the power of her office. Kim is suspected of ordering the ministry to create a blacklist of dozens of public servants based on their political inclinations and using it to oust some of them. The prosecution also suspects that she ordered ministry officials to coerce their resignations and conducted audits to pressure them.

Although Kim said earlier that she would make public her position before attending the warrant hearing, she did not make any specific remarks.

A presidential secretary in the Moon Blue House was also accused of being involved in the political purge of blacklisted officials and influencing subsequent appointments for the vacancies. The prosecution said it will soon summon Shin Mi-sook, presidential secretary for balanced personnel affairs, to question her about any role in the alleged hiring malpractices. Shin was accused of reprimanding Environment Ministry officials last year after they dropped a candidate the Blue House recommended for an affiliated organization.

The prosecution questioned Blue House officials under Shin’s supervision earlier this month on the allegation. Speculation is also high that Cho Hyun-ock, senior secretary for personnel affairs and Shin’s supervisor, will be questioned.

As the prosecution launched the first probe targeting the administration, the Blue House and the ruling party reacted angrily. After the prosecution applied for the detention warrant for the former environment minister on Friday, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said he would wait and see how the court will handle the case.

“We will see how far the court will permit a minister’s rights to make an appointment and conduct an audit,” he said. “We expect the court to make a balanced judgment compared to the precedents of past administrations.”

The remarks quickly prompted criticism in the legal community that the Blue House was pressuring the judiciary.

It is not the first time that the Blue House reacted sensitively to alleged malpractices. Last month, Kim expressed anger at the media for comparing Moon’s administration to that of his predecessors by using the expression “blacklist.”

In a statement on Feb. 20, the presidential spokesman said it was unfair to compare the Environment Ministry’s appointment policy to the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations’ operations and management of blacklists. He also said it is the role of presidential aides to consult with ministries on appointments.

“If that is a problem, then there is no reason for their existence,” he said.

Rep. Woo Sang-ho of the ruling Democratic Party criticized the prosecution for attempting to detain Kim. “She was a minister until a few months ago,” said Woo. “It is excessive for the prosecution to seek a detention warrant by treating her as a flight risk.”

In an interview with TBS radio, Woo said Monday that the charges against Kim were routine and common practices in the Lee and Park administrations. “The Park administration often exerted pressure to change heads of public institutions,” he said, adding that almost all ministers of the past governments would have to face criminal charges if the prosecution were to apply the same logic.

BY SER MYO-JA, YONHAP [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]