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Indictment blacked out by ministry published

Feb 08,2020
After a local newspaper released the full text of a 71-page indictment of 13 suspects linked to the Blue House’s alleged abuse of power to influence the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election, opposition politicians Friday questioned the integrity of the Moon Jae-in administration.

Friday morning, the Dong-A Ilbo posted on its internet site the entire text of an indictment of Ulsan Mayor Song Cheol-ho, a longtime friend of President Moon, and 12 others. The newspaper said it recently obtained the 71-page document through legitimate means and published it in the interest of the general public.

The indictment is at the center of a snowballing controversy after the Ministry of Justice imposed an unprecedented gag order on it Tuesday. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae said she ordered the ministry to withhold the indictment because releasing it to the National Assembly could violate the defendants’ privacy and the right to a fair trial.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is investigating suspicions that presidential aides helped Song win the election in June 2018 by triggering a police corruption investigation into his rival, then-Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), just three months before the race. Kim was cleared of any wrongdoing in March 2019.

On Jan. 29, the prosecution indicted 13 people including Ulsan Mayor Song, Ulsan Vice Mayor Song Byung-gi and former Ulsan police chief Hwang Un-ha for election law violations in the case.

Former Senior Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs Han Byung-do, former Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Baek Won-woo and former Presidential Secretary for Anticorruption Park Hyoung-chul were also indicted.

Im Jong-seok, who served as presidential chief of staff from May 2017 till January 2019, was questioned on Jan. 30 about his suspected role in the scandal, but the prosecution decided to suspend the probe until after the April 15 general elections in order to avoid unnecessary political repercussions.

“The administration, the Blue House and the police conspired to influence the Ulsan mayoral election,” Rep. Kim Jae-won, chief policymaker of the LKP, said Friday.

“You can clearly see who had been the final decision-maker in the process to influence in the election. We will closely pay attention to how this case will be concluded and if the main culprit will be revealed.”

“President Moon and the Blue House failed to respect political neutrality,” said Rep. Kim Hyun-ah, spokeswoman of the LKP. “They abused the power of the state to help a particular candidate. Because they looked down on the people and democracy, they didn’t hesitate to manipulate the election and distort public sentiment.”

Hong Joon-pyo, former LKP chairman, posted a message on Facebook on Friday to attack Moon. Hong was the party’s presidential candidate but lost to Moon in 2017.

“One week ago, I presented legal grounds why Moon needs to be impeached,” Hong wrote.

“First, Moon was at the center of the public opinion manipulation scandal before the [2017] presidential election. Second, he was also at the center of the unlawful meddling in the Ulsan mayoral election.”

Ahn Cheol-soo, former head of the Bareunmirae Party and another presidential candidate defeated in the 2017 race, urged Moon to come clean. “He must confess what he knew about this case and when,” Ahn wrote in a Twitter message. “The Blue House is like a criminal ring. Are you making the same kind of preparations for the upcoming general election?”

The prosecution has left open the possibility that its investigation, once it resumes after the April general elections, will focus on higher members of the Blue House.

“The president and public servants assisting the work of the president are more strongly required to have political neutrality in an election than other public servants,” the prosecution wrote in the introduction of the indictment. According to the indictment, the prosecutors concluded that the Ulsan mayoral election was rigged in favor of Song, a friend of Moon’s for 30 years.

Presidential aides operated a political operation to remove a primary rival inside the Democratic Party (DP) to award the nomination to Song and masterminded a police probe into Ulsan Mayor Kim to hurt his reputation before the race, the indictment said.

Before and after the June 2018 local election, the Blue House received a total of 21 briefings about the police investigation, according to the incitement.

The prosecution also concluded that the administration gave organized support to create and back campaign pledges made by Song.

Legal analysts say the case is very serious for the Moon administration if key suspects are convicted. Former President Park Geun-hye received a two-year prison term for her election law violation conviction. In 2018, she was found guilty of having influenced the nomination process of her own ruling Saenuri Party ahead of the 2016 general elections.

Former Ulsan Mayor Kim has been demanding an investigation into Moon, calling him “politically and legally responsible” for the manipulated election.

The prosecution, however, is tight-lipped about the possibility of investigating Moon. “We cannot completely rule it out, but I will say the possibility is extremely slim,” an official of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office told the JoongAng Ilbo on Friday. “It is premature to mention the incumbent president.”

Law experts said investigating an incumbent president is almost unfeasible in Korea. “The president shall not be charged with a criminal offense during his tenure of office except for insurrection or treason,” Article 84 of the Constitution stipulated.

The ruling DP was silent about the full disclosure of the indictment. DP leaders who attended a Supreme Council meeting in the morning, including Chairman Lee Hae-chan and floor leader Lee In-young, mainly discussed efforts to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

Conspicuously missing was criticism of the newspaper’s decision to publish the indictment and the opposition politicians who quoted the document.

After the meeting, Rep. Hong Ik-pyo, chief spokesman of the party, told reporters that the Justice Ministry was not keeping the details of the indictment secret. “It just changed the timing of the full disclosure. Once the trial begins, the entire text will be made public,” he said.

BY SER MYO-JA, LEE GA-YOUNG[ ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]