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Yoon vetoes bill for special probe into young Marine's death

Tensions escalate as Marine probe bill set to head back to Assembly after Yoon's 10th veto

May 21, 2024 - 16:07 By Son Ji-hyoung
President Yoon Suk Yeol attends a news conference in his office on May 9. (Yonhap)

Bipartisan tensions are poised to reignite over the bill for a special investigation into allegations of government interference surrounding a young Marine's death last July, as it heads back to the National Assembly after a presidential veto.

President Yoon Suk Yeol blocked the bill Tuesday, rejecting the opposition parties' calls for an independent counsel's investigation of the alleged influence-peddling case, his Chief of Staff Chung Jin-suk told reporters.

It became the 10th bill that Yoon has vetoed during his two years of presidency since May 2022.

Chung expressed concerns regarding the independent counsel proposal put forth by the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea. Chung stated that the bill "does not guarantee the basic principle of impartiality and confidence in the judiciary system."

This is due to the provision stating that the president can only appoint individuals recommended by the opposition party to the special counsel post, thereby "depriving Yoon of his power to nominate" that is enshrined in the Constitution.

Granting the special counsel the right to hold daily press briefings over the procedure of the investigation, as described in the bill, could "institutionalize the publication of facts of suspected criminals," which is punishable with a three-year prison term, he added.

Chung also said that the launch of the special counsel at this moment "goes against the principle" that one should only take place to complement a seriously flawed investigation under extraordinary circumstances, given that the investigations by law enforcement and the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials have just kicked off.

Presidential Chief of Staff Chung Jin-suk speaks at a press briefing in the presidential office in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

This echoed the remarks by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Tuesday, who asked Yoon to veto the special counsel bill by passing a motion in a Cabinet meeting he presided over at the Government Complex Seoul.

Han argued that the bill would grant the accuser of the case the power to recommend the special counsel nominees and determine its scope of investigation.

Han referred to the Democratic Party, which in September already filed complaints against the suspects, including former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and an unnamed official of the presidential National Security Office. Yoon is also among the accused, as a group representing reserve Marines has filed complaints against Yoon and his secretary.

Following the announcement of Yoon's veto, a Democratic Party's spokesperson said in a statement that Yoon vetoed the bill "out of fears that the mastermind behind the interference (into an ongoing probe into Marine's death) could be laid bare," and that Yoon "admitted that he was the culprit (behind the state meddling) with the veto."

The bill had been passed in the assembly's plenary session on May 2 by the Democratic Party of Korea, while the ruling People Power Party's lawmakers walked out during the vote in protest.

The Yoon administration is accused of having tried to coerce the Marine Corps' internal investigator-in-charge into abandoning charges against a division commander, over Corporal Chae Su-geun's death in July 2023 during a search and rescue operation in a stream flooded by torrential rains. The internal probe was meant to discover who was responsible for Chae's lack of safety equipment.

Ruling party floor leader Rep. Choo Kyung-ho said in a meeting Tuesday at the National Assembly, "No special counsel legislation can get the government's approval without a bipartisan agreement."

The Democratic Party has the majority of seats in the National Assembly. Little will change after the new session of the parliament begins in late May following the opposition parties' landslide victory last month.

Rep. Lee Jae-myung (center, front), who leads the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, speaks before the press at the National Assembly criticizing the ruling bloc's move to reject the special probe bill on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Yoon has now vetoed a total of 10 bills sponsored by the opposition, making him the South Korean president with the second-highest number of vetoed bills since President Syngman Rhee's tenure, which began in 1948. During his 12-year presidency, Rhee exercised his veto power a total of 45 times.

In April 2023, Yoon vetoed the revision of the Grain Management Act, which was meant to mandate the government's purchase of excess rice production. Yoon also rejected the Nursing Act aimed at easing nursing regulations in May 2023.

Later in December, Yoon struck down four bills, including a pro-labor "Yellow Envelope" bill and three media bills that the opposition called for to shield Korea's broadcasters from political influence.

Yoon sent back two more bills in January. One was calling for a special counsel to investigate first lady Kim Keon Hee over her alleged stock manipulation allegations, and the other was to speed up the investigation into a bribery case concerning a high-profile corruption scandal in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.

Lastly, later in January, Yoon vetoed the Itaewon probe bill, which was later signed into law following bipartisan negotiations.

However, none of the nine bills were able to override the presidential veto because the opposition parties fell short by about a dozen seats of the 200-threshold required in the National Assembly to achieve this.