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[Editorial] Ruling too late

Suspects finally receive sentences in Ulsan election intervention case

Dec. 1, 2023 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

The court issued a first-trial ruling on Wednesday in a high-profile case in which former President Moon Jae-in's Cheong Wa Dae intervened in the June 2018 election for mayor of Ulsan.

It sentenced former Ulsan Mayor Song Cheol-ho to three years in prison for violating the election law and former Ulsan police chief, and current opposition lawmaker Hwang Un-ha to two years behind bars for violating the election law and six months in jail on charges of abuse of power. Also, two former presidential secretaries received prison sentences.

The ruling comes three years and 10 months after the prosecution indicted them in January 2020. It came too late.

The court acknowledged Cheong Wa Dae’s organized election intervention. Moon once said it was his "wish" to see Song, his "friend of 30 years," elected as Ulsan mayor. Then Moon's secretaries in Cheong Wa Dae intervened to get Song elected. They told the Ulsan police chief to investigate the then-opposition party candidate on tip-offs offered by the Song election campaign. At that time, Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon, who is the current ruling party leader, ran for re-election. Officials of the Kim election campaign were cleared of charges later by the prosecution, but only after Kim lost the election. It was a wholly undemocratic election.

The court seems to have deliberately delayed the hearing for more than a year. The first-trial ruling came five years and five months after the election. In the meantime, Song served out his mayoral term and retired in June last year. Hwang, who became a lawmaker of the Democratic Party of Korea after investigating the People Power Party candidate as Ulsan police chief, is expected to serve out his National Assembly membership until May 2024.

If a candidate is elected to public office by unfair means and serves out his or her term due to a delay in the trial, what is the use of an election lawsuit? As the legal maxim goes, justice delayed is justice denied. When it comes to election law violations, speed is the life of an investigation and the tribunal. This is why the law instructs judges to issue first-trial rulings on election law cases within six months after indictment and final rulings within a year.

The prosecution service under the Moon administration is primarily responsible for the delay in bringing the case to justice. Moon-appointed senior prosecutors appear to have tried to put off indictment and cover up the case. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae disbanded the investigation team trying to probe those above the defendants. Then the clincher was the judicial foot-dragging under Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su, a Moon appointee.

A senior judge to whom Chief Justice Kim assigned the first trial conducted only preparation for a hearing over one year and three months, and suddenly took a leave of absence from work in April 2021. A new bench was formed and held the first hearing in May 2021, one year and four months after the indictment.

The investigation of this case faces the criticism that it is incomplete. The whole truth of the incident has not yet been revealed. Nobody would believe that several presidential secretaries acted on their own. It seems certain to have been masterminded by the people above them. It is obvious who they are. But the prosecution did not indict chief and senior secretaries, despite identifying them as strong suspects. It is common sense to conclude that the incident leads back to former President Moon. If Moon had not mentioned Song, Cheong Wa Dae would not have intervened. A renewed investigation is required.

Delaying trials is an abnormality of the court that must be urgently corrected. The court exists to conduct fair and expeditious trials. People look forward to a new Chief Justice getting trial speed back to normal. The National Assembly will hold confirmation hearings on the chief justice nominee on Dec. 5 and 6. Separately from the court administration’s efforts to normalize the speed of trials, the Assembly needs to consider legislating quick trials.