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Probe into martial law plan is broadened

July 24,2018
The Ministries of National Defense and Justice announced on Monday they will launch a special joint military and prosecution team to probe allegations that a military intelligence unit made plans to invoke martial law under the previous administration and spied on Sewol ferry disaster victims.

This probe by the military and prosecutors is an expansion of tasks assigned by President Moon Jae-in to the Defense Ministry’s independent special investigation team. The military’s special investigation team alone would not have the authority to summon civilians, and joining with the Justice Ministry is expected to increase the scope and speed of the probe. The military investigators are expected to focus on officers involved in the case, while prosecutors will investigate key military and Defense Ministry figures who are no longer in service.

This joint team will look into allegations that the controversial Defense Security Command (DSC) drafted a document on how the military could take over the country last year if President Park Geun-hye was not removed from office, revealed last week, as well as accusations that it attempted to monitor families of victims of the Sewol ferry sinking in April 2014, which killed over 300 people, most of whom were high school students.

“This decision was reached by taking into consideration the importance of the situation in which people are raising allegations on the DSC document and the necessity of cooperation with the prosecution, because civilians are also key figures that need to be investigated,” said Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson of the Defense Ministry, in a briefing in Seoul on Monday.

Last Friday, the Blue House released a document drafted by the Defense Security Command that described the military’s contingency plan for martial law, which included arresting opposition lawmakers for “anti-state” activities in case the Constitutional Court allowed President Park Geun-hye to remain in power last year and mass protests broke out. The command recommended the chief of staff of the Army lead the martial law command, instead of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and for the National Intelligence Service to follow the martial law command’s directives.

Park was eventually removed from office in March 2017 when the Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of her, following months of candlelight vigils protesting her administration’s corruption and abuse of power.

This probe by the military and prosecution is expected to investigate high-ranking and working-level officials of the command. It is also expected to include key figures linked to the case who are who are all no longer in public office, including Cho Hyun-chun, then-commander of the command, former Defense Minister Han Min-koo and Kim Kwan-jin, then-chief of the Blue House National Security Office.

The Justice Ministry in a statement said, “There is a need to discover the truth in this case more than ever before, and because the key individuals involved in the case are civilians, it is urgent for the prosecutors and military’s special team to conduct a joint probe.”

Joint military and prosecution probes took place previously into a scandal over conscription dodging in 1999 and corruption in the defense industry in 2014. In 1999, military investigators and prosecutors cooperated in their probe but maintained separate offices, and announced their findings jointly. In 2014, military prosecutors were dispatched to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office to jointly conduct the investigation.

Park Kyung-soo, a legal affairs official with the Defense Ministry, said, “We have agreed on the larger framework, that the two agencies will operate a joint probe team while investigating independently, and share their investigation contents and methods.”

The team would be co-headed by an official from the military and the prosecution, and a meeting was held Monday afternoon to fine-tune the details.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]