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Yang to speak to press in front of court

Former chief justice is first to be questioned as a criminal suspect
Jan 11,2019
Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae plans to host a press conference today in front of the Supreme Court before he is questioned by the prosecution for allegedly influencing politically sensitive trials to curry favor with the Park Geun-hye government.

Yang, chief justice of the Supreme Court from September 2011 to September 2017, will be questioned by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office starting at 9:30 a.m. today. He is the first former chief justice of the Supreme Court to be questioned by prosecutors as a criminal suspect.

Yang plans to host the press conference near the front gate of the Supreme Court building before he heads to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, which is located just across a street from the court, according to his lawyer. The lawyer said Yang will not make a statement in front of the prosecutors’ office, which is the norm for suspects called in for questioning.

During the press conference, Yang is expected to plead his innocence on the allegation that he colluded with justices, lawyers and the presidential office to influence politically sensitive trials during the Park administration.

Some criticized Yang’s decision to speak in front on the court as arrogant.

“I think Yang still has more he wants to say to the court, rather than answering people [regarding the allegations],” said Prof. Han Sang-hee of Konkuk University’s Law School. “Yang refusing to make a statement in front of the prosecutors’ office can also be interpreted as an implicit slighting of the prosecution’s authority.”

“The front gate to the Supreme Court premises has long been known as an area used by people who could not win cases at the Supreme Court,” said a police officer, who said he often witnessed rallies held at the front gate. “They used this gate as their last resort to get their voices heard.”

Others, however, welcomed Yang’s decision.

“I think the practice that we’ve had - of having suspects issuing statements in front of the press at a prosecutors’ office before they head in to be questioned - violates the constitutional principle of presumed innocence,” said Huh Young, a professor of constitutional law at Kyung Hee University Law School.

Article 27 of South Korea’s Constitution states that “the accused shall be presumed innocent until a judgment of guilt has been pronounced.”

“At that moment when a suspect stands before the press at the prosecutors’ office, they are practically standing there to be condemned by the public,” said Kim Hyun, president of the Korean Bar Association. “Any suspect has a right to decide a location to make a statement, including Yang.”

It remains to be seen if Yang could indeed host a press conference inside or near the Supreme Court as members of the Korean United Government Employees’ Union announced Thursday that they will stop Yang from entering the court’s premises.

The last time Yang hosted a press conference was on June 1, 2018, near his home. At the time, Yang denied the allegations and told the press, “Trials are sacred, and they cannot be disparaged as alleged.”

The trials Yang is accused of influencing include suits filed by Korean plaintiffs against Japanese companies that forced them into labor during World War II and the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to remand a lower court ruling that ordered Korail, the national rail operator, to rehire workers it fired.

Yang is accused of pulling strings within the judiciary to try to delay rulings or remand some to lower courts depending on what the Blue House preferred. The former chief of staff to Park, Kim Ki-choon, told prosecutors that Park instructed her aides to persuade the judiciary to delay trials in lawsuits between Japanese companies and their Korean victims of forced labor.

Using the trials as bargaining chips, Yang allegedly wanted the Blue House’s support for his personal goal to set up a new court of appeals, which never came about. If Yang is found guilty of the allegations, it would prove to be a serious breach of the constitutional principle of separation of powers.

The prosecution began investigating the case in June 2018 and has questioned justices, including former Supreme Court Justice Park Byoung-dae and Ko Young-han. Prosecutors also raided the office Kim & Jang, the largest law firm in Korea, for their alleged collusion with Yang. The former deputy head of the administrative body of the Supreme Court, Lim Jong-hun, has already been arrested and indicted for power abuse.

BY PARK TAE-IN, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]