The row over Woo Byung-woo, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs who is dogged by accusations of corruption, has taken a new turn as the powerful presidential aide was referred to the prosecution for investigation last week.
Lee Seok-su, the special inspector general who has inspected Woo for a month, wrapped up his inspection Thursday, filing with the prosecution a request for a formal probe into the presidential secretary, who oversees law enforcement agencies, including the prosecution.
Woo faces accusations of having abused his authority to help his son be assigned to an easy job during his ongoing military service. He is also alleged to have misappropriated money from a company run by his family and evaded taxes.
The special inspector’s action was a blow to President Park Geun-hye, who has sought to defend Woo, turning a deaf ear to the growing public outcry for his dismissal.
One reason Park has refused to fire him is her perception that the opposition parties’ virulent attacks on him are in fact intended to weaken her leadership and make her a lame-duck president.
It was against this backdrop that the Presidential Office took issue Friday with the special inspector’s alleged leak of the details of his inspection.
A local broadcaster reported last week that Lee talked about how he would proceed with his investigation into Woo with an unspecified reporter via social media.
Kim Sung-woo, presidential secretary for public affairs, said Lee’s alleged leak of information should be investigated as it would be, if confirmed, a grave breach of the law.
The law on independent inspector general prohibits the special inspector from disclosing the details of the inspection. A violation could cost the inspector up to five years in prison or a suspension of qualifications as a lawyer for up to five years.
The Presidential Office’s call for investigation into Lee was a move aimed at undercutting the legitimacy of the special inspector’s decision against Woo.
Yet it further demonstrated that the office still remained out of touch with public opinion over the Woo question.
Now, the prosecution has to investigate both Woo and Lee. Yet it should put more weight on probing the presidential secretary as the escalating disputes between Cheong Wa Dae and opposition parties over him threaten to cause a political stalemate.
Prosecutors, however, are expected to face difficulties in investigating Woo as he remains a presidential secretary responsible for oversight of the prosecution.
In fact, Woo is suspected of having used his influence to obstruct Lee’s investigation into him. Lee lamented in his SNS exchanges with a journalist about the difficulties of getting cooperation from the police and witnesses. Yet the Presidential Office did not mention these suspicions against Woo.
Now President Park should let Woo go so that prosecutors can investigate him thoroughly. If she insists on keeping him in office, she will only fuel the anger of opposition parties.
The Woo problem has become a black hole that absorbs all other issues. Without resolving it, Park cannot expect cooperation from opposition parties in pushing for reforms and implementing measures to enhance national security.
She needs to realize that she can delay her inevitable slide into lame-duck status not by defending Woo, but by letting him step down.