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[Editorial] Special counsel bill

CIO, police must be impartial in probe involving the president

May 22, 2024 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday vetoed a special counsel bill to investigate allegations that his office or others exerted undue influence on an inquiry into the death of a Marine last year.

"The special prosecutor system is an exceptional measure that can only be introduced supplementarily when the investigation by law enforcement agencies is inadequate or when the fairness or objectivity of the investigation is in doubt, but investigations by police and the CIO are currently underway," presidential chief of staff Chung Jin-suk said.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has vowed to vote for it again at the parliament’s plenary session on May 28. If it is voted down and dies as the 21st National Assembly ends the next day, the Democratic Party said they will propose it again as soon as the 22nd National Assembly opens in June.

The case in question is not complicated.

In July 2023, Marine Cpl. Chae Su-geun died after being swept away by a torrent in a stream in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, during a search mission for victims of heavy rain. The Marines were ordered to go into the overflowing stream without life vests or ropes.

Col. Park Jung-hoon led the Marine Corps’ probe into how that had happened, and reported the results accusing eight people including the commander of the 1st Marine Division of manslaughter by occupational negligence to then-defense minister Lee Jong-sup. Lee signed off the report on July 30, but the next day ordered the Marine Corps deputy commander to defer the case transfer to the police, citing a need for a legal review.

Park went ahead and handed over the case to the police anyway as per the revised Military Court Act. The ministry retrieved the case files from the police, revised the report to accuse only two battalion commanders, and sent it to the police. Military prosecutors indicted Park on charges of insubordination and defamation in October. The Democratic Party of Korea filed a complaint against Lee with the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials in September for allegedly exerting improper influence on the probe.

The CIO questioned Marine Corps Commandant Lt. Gen. Kim Kye-hwan and Park again Tuesday. Park claimed that he heard from Kim that President Yoon was “infuriated” upon hearing about the initial probe results. Kim has denied making such remarks.

About the special counsel bill, Yoon said during a press conference on May 9 that he would first wait for the results of the ongoing probes by the police and the CIO.

“Should they leave any further suspicions, I myself will request for a special counsel investigation,” the president said.

The opposition parties say a special counsel investigation is necessary because the CIO’s probe is taking too long and they can’t trust the prosecution, which will handle the indictments based on the police investigation. The CIO is an agency created by the Democratic Party in 2020 as it passed a related bill despite strong opposition. Now they want a special counsel of their choice because they can’t trust the CIO under a new president.

The Military Court Act was revised in 2021 to have civilian courts, instead of military courts, have jurisdiction over crimes that caused the deaths of active-duty soldiers, among others. Hence, the police, not the military, has the right to investigate such cases. The Democratic Party gave most of the investigative power previously held by the prosecution to the police under the previous administration.

The CIO and the police should investigate fairly, without delay. It may not be a bad idea for the opposition to have some faith in the agencies they created or empowered before rushing ahead with the special counsel bill.