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Martial law probe to look at surveillance of Sewol families

July 16,2018
The special probe starting Monday into a military intelligence unit’s drafting of plans to impose martial law last year will also examine the unit’s alleged surveillance of the relatives of Sewol ferry victims.

With the dust barely settled from the disclosure of a document on July 5 that showed the Defense Security Command (DSC) had drawn up plans for a possible imposition of martial law in case the Constitutional Court decided not to remove President Park Geun-hye from office in March 2017, the Ministry of National Defense on Thursday released the results of a separate investigation showing the DSC allegedly spied on the Sewol victims’ families and attempted to sway public opinion in favor of the Park administration in the aftermath of the tragic sinking.

On Wednesday, the Defense Ministry - under orders from President Moon Jae-in - appointed Air Force Col. Jeon Ik-soo to head a special investigation team comprised of 10 military prosecutors from the Navy and Air Force and two dozen investigators dispatched from the prosecutors’ office. The probe will proceed until Aug. 10, the ministry said.

The investigative team will be split in two, with one group looking into the martial law plans and the other the Sewol ferry surveillance. A figure central to both cases is Maj. Gen. So Kang-won, the DSC’s current chief of staff, who was head of the unit’s Gwangju branch in 2014.

The Defense Ministry’s reports show that So was involved in the DSC’s special task force designed to engineer a political environment favorable to the Park Blue House following the Sewol ferry sinking in April 2014, in part by reining in victims’ families critical of the administration’s botched rescue operation.

In one document, the DSC classified victims’ families into three different categories - hardline, moderate and soft-line - based on their attitudes toward the Park administration, and contained information on the families’ political activity up to six months prior to the sinking from November 2013.

These revelations, in addition to the March 2017 martial law plans that described progressive protesters as “North Korea-followers” and justified suppressing dissent violently to restore order, seem to be evidence that military officials in the DSC meddled in political affairs throughout the Park administration.

A high-ranking military official, who asked not to be named, said the orders to draft martial law plans probably came to So from then-DSC chief Cho Hyun-chun, who in turn received them from then-Defense Minister Han Min-koo. These figures, as well as Lt. Gen. Lee Jae-su, who was DSC chief throughout the Sewol surveillance case, are likely to be investigated.

If evidence emerges that the top echelons of the Park administration were aware of the martial law plans and Sewol surveillance, former Blue House national security adviser Kim Kwan-jin and the jailed former president herself are expected to be questioned.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]