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[Editorial] Suspected deals on trial

Daejang-dong scandal suspect says he made top court overturn rulings

Jan. 17, 2023 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

Prosecutors are said to have secured a statement by Nam Wook, a suspect standing trial in the Daejang-dong land development scandal, to the effect that Kim Man-bae, another key suspect related to the scandal, has once said he made the Supreme Court overturn appeals court rulings on two cases.

The statement was made in October 2021.

One case was an appeals court ruling that Lee Jae-myung, leader of the majority opposition Democratic Party of Korea, violated the election law when he was a candidate for governor of Gyeonggi Province. The other was the appellate judgment that invalidated Seongnam's decision to develop part of the site of a vacated local industrial complex into a community park.

The reversal of the ruling on Lee's election law violation opened the way for him to run in the last presidential election. The overturn of the decision to invalidate a park plan cleared an obstacle to the project to develop Daejang-dong in Seongnam, south of Seoul.

During a TV debate among Gyeonggi governor candidates in 2018, Lee remarked to the effect that he had not been involved in the forced confinement of his brother in a psychiatric hospital. He was accused of spreading disinformation during the debate.

The appeals court fined him 3 million won ($2,400), a ruling that would invalidate his Gyeonggi governorship and disqualify him from running for public offices. However, thanks to the Supreme Court's reversal of the ruling in July 2020, he could come back from the brink to maintain his governorship and later run for president.

When opinions on whether Lee lied or not were split 5-5, Justice Kwon Soon-il who was the most senior among the top court justices at that time advanced an opinion that Lee was innocent.

The Supreme Court judged to the effect that though Lee lied during the TV debate, the lie was neither active, intentional or unilateral. Kwon is said to have presented this strange logical argument. His opinion played a decisive role in tipping the scale in favor of Lee.

Afterwards, Kim is said to have told Nam that he had "asked Justice Kwon for a favor and that thanks to his request for the favor, the ruling was overturned."

Kim visited the Supreme Court eight times in about a year. He wrote "the Office of Supreme Court Justice Kwon Soon-il" on the court access list. He visited Kwon a day after the case was forwarded to the entire bench and a day after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lee.

Kwon retired in September 2020, three months after the ruling, and a few months later he became a legal adviser for Hwacheondaeyu Asset Management, whose largest shareholder is Kim.

Kwon received 13.5 million won in advisory fees each month for 11 months then quit as the Daejang-dong scandal broke out. If his behavior had been open and aboveboard, he would have had no reason to quit midway.

Suspicions that the Supreme Court did a deal on the case were raised at that time, but prosecutors under the Moon Jae-in administration effectively ended investigation after summoning Kwon just twice for questioning. There were no raids.

In the industrial complex case, a developer that had gained permission before Lee became Seongnam mayor to build apartment buildings on a vacated industrial complex site filed a suit against Lee claiming damages for his decision to cancel earlier permission in order to make the site a park. The developer won in the court of appeals, but in February 2016, the Supreme Court quashed the appellate judgment.

Lee pushed the park project in combination with Daejang-dong development. If the Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling, a setback to the Daejang-dong project would have been unavoidable. Nam reportedly said that he did not remember the name of the justice whom Kim asked for a favor.

Prosecutors are not actively investigating suspicions related to the Supreme Court's overturn of appellate decisions in order to focus on the Daejang-dong scandal. Many in legal profession viewed the Supreme Court's rulings as exceptional. If Nam's statement is true, it would be reasonable to suspect "deals done on trials." It would mean a corrupted Supreme Court. A thorough reinvestigation is needed.