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Two reps from ruling party get off the hook

Scandals over real estate, judiciary keep up opposition outrage
Jan 19,2019
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From left: Sohn Hye-won, Seo Young-kyo
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) decided to let two of its lawmakers off the hook in scandals over buying real estate on alleged inside information and influence peddling with the judiciary.

In an emergency meeting Thursday, DP leaders resolved not to take punitive action on Rep. Sohn Hye-won and Rep. Seo Young-kyo after an internal party investigation of the two lawmakers.

DP spokesman Lee Hae-sik said the party was accepting Sohn’s argument that her purchase of nine buildings in Mokpo, South Jeolla, along with family members and an aide was intended to preserve historical areas of the city and that she had no intention of profiting unfairly. The party will postpone any formal determination of ethics violations for the time being, Lee said, since Sohn is “strongly determined to fix the issue with clarification.”

In the case of Seo, who is accused of asking favors from a judge dispatched by the Supreme Court to the National Assembly to intervene in an ongoing trial, the spokesman said “wrongdoing cannot be ascertained with just what is written on the arraignment,” and the party would accept Seo’s voluntary resignation as deputy floor leader.

The allegations leveled against Seo raised concerns over judicial independence amid an ongoing power abuse scandal in the judiciary that is likely to lead to the indictment of the previous chief justice of the Supreme Court, Yang Sung-tae.

On Tuesday, prosecutors investigating the scandal said that Seo, who used to be a member of the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee, asked a sitting judge recommended by the Supreme Court to serve as a legal adviser to the legislature to try to get a sentence reduced for a son of one of her acquaintances.

It is believed that by granting Seo’s request, the National Court Administration (NCA) - the administrative arm of the judiciary - would have been able to enlist her support in the creation of a new high appeals court - a long time goal of former Chief Justice Yang.

Seo denied the allegation, saying Wednesday she did not remember meeting the judge and that, even if she did, all that happened was that she relayed “the sad story of an innocent person.”

Opposition parties accused the ruling party of turning a blind eye to serious misdeeds.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP)’s floor leader Na Kyung-won on Thursday called Sohn’s case a “giant power-related corruption scandal,” and brought up Sohn’s personal friendship with first lady Kim Jung-sook to link the presidential office to the scandal, despite a lack of evidence for this suggestion.

Na’s comments prompted Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom to implore the opposition to “retain a bare minimum level of dignity, no matter how dirty politics can be.” The presidential spokesman added that the accusations against Sohn are the Democratic Party’s problem, not the Blue House’s.

This did not stop the LKP from exploiting the allegations against Sohn to continuing the offensive against the Moon Jae-in administration. LKP spokesman, Lee Yang-soo, said on Thursday that Sohn’s late father had been awarded an Order of Merit for National Foundation last year by the Moon administration despite having been overlooked for the award six times earlier dating back to 1982.

Sohn’s father, Sohn Yong-woo, who died in 1997, was arrested in 1940 by Japanese colonial authorities and served a year and half in jail for publicly announcing Japan would lose its wars and decrying the shutdown of Korean-language newspapers like the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo. According to an interview Sohn had with one local newspaper last year, her father was a youth secretary to the socialist leader and independence activist Lyuh Woon-hyung.

The LKP argues that Sohn’s personal ties to the president allowed her early access to information that the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs would be expanding the recognition of independence fighters to those with a socialist background last June, with which her family reapplied for her father’s decoration four months before the announcement in February.

One LKP insider also accused Sohn of putting pressure on the Veterans Ministry to award socialists with the accolade, but the ministry has denied this claim. Sohn’s family says they reapplied for the older Sohn’s decoration based on Moon’s promise during his presidential campaign back in 2017 that he would honor more activists.

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