Prosecution seeks arrest warrant for Seoul’s ex-defense chief over case involving N. Korea

Posted on : 2022-10-19 17:25 KST Modified on : 2022-10-19 17:25 KST
The move is being called unprecedented and aggressive, coming only days after the BAI released its own report on the case
Suh Wook, the former minister of defense under President Moon Jae-in, speaks at an event in this undated file photo. (Yonhap)
Suh Wook, the former minister of defense under President Moon Jae-in, speaks at an event in this undated file photo. (Yonhap)

Prosecutors investigating the 2020 death of a fisheries official in the West Sea requested arrest warrants for former Defense Minister Suh Wook and former Coast Guard Commissioner General Kim Hong-hee on Tuesday. The request was made a mere four days after the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) released a report tantamount to an indictment.

Despite this case being a low priority, demonstrated by the fact that this is the first request for arrest warrants after the prosecution began its investigation in July, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office requested the warrants on the day of parliamentary inspection, an unusual and unprecedented decision.

Legal circles are questioning how prosecutors are investigating this case, as they appear to be deliberately stirring political controversy.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office’s first national security, election and labor department (headed by Lee Hee-dong) stated at 12:30 pm on Wednesday that it sought arrest warrants for the former defense minister and former coast guard commissioner general on charges of abuse of power and forgery of official documents.

Prosecutors claimed that the arrest warrant was based on the details of the investigation and the degrees of charges as well as the severity of the matter and the possibility of the destruction of evidence. The prosecution called in Suh for questioning on Oct. 13, and Kim on Oct. 14.

Seeing as the prosecution was initially struggling to make progress on its investigation into the case of the slain official, it can be inferred that the BAI’s report on the case was a decisive factor in the prosecution’s request for arrest warrants.

On Oct. 13, the BAI disclosed the details of the prosecution’s investigation report without a vote of its council of commissioners and asked two days later for 20 relevant parties to be investigated by the prosecution. The agency said that on Sept. 23, 2020, 60 military intelligence reports about the case of the official’s death were deleted from the Military Intelligence Management System (MIMS) per Suh’s instructions.

In addition, the prosecution has said that there are further allegations that the former minister colluded with the Blue House National Security Office on Sept. 24 of the same year to write a report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the effect claiming a “high probability” that the official was defecting to North Korea.

The BAI’s said in its report that it had proof that, while serving as head of the Coast Guard at the time of the incident, Kim stated, “I’ll pretend I didn’t see that” after being briefed that the deceased public servant’s life jacket had Chinese characters on it.

The National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee has been conducting a parliamentary audit of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office since Tuesday. Amid a feud between Korea’s two biggest political parties, with the Democratic Party accusing the prosecution of “political retaliation” with its large-scale investigations targeting the former administration, while the People Power Party claims that the investigation is completely warranted, the prosecution has suddenly pulled an aggressive move by suddenly requesting arrest warrants for minister-level officials.

The prosecution is extremely sensitive to accusations of being swayed easily by its political interests. Therefore, in cases where clashes between the ruling party and the opposition are inevitable, it has carried out its investigations by tactfully adjusting the schedules of witness summons, search and seizures, and the actual date of indictment to avoid controversy.

The prosecution has consistently applied this principle to investigations unless the situations are especially urgent, but the request for arrest warrants for Suh and others deliberately ignores all rules and precedents.

Suspicions had arisen over the audit and the information disclosed about it, with some critics saying that it was “made to order” and a “publication of facts of a suspected crime.” By requesting an arrest warrant four days after the audit concluded, the prosecution is only adding fuel to the flames.

It is highly likely that this has been reported in advance to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office as well as the Ministry of Justice, as this is the first request for an arrest warrant for a case where even a former president, in this case, Moon Jae-in, is being brought up as a subject of investigation.

A lawyer who formerly served as a senior prosecutor, commented that since the BAI announced a more detailed report than what the prosecution anticipated, it seemed that the parties involved were “worried that they would not be able to make sure that their testimonies matched up.”

“They would’ve judged that securing the safety of their peers was more important than being criticized during a parliamentary audit,” they added.

Some in legal circles are expressing doubts about the reasoning behind the prosecution’s request for the arrest warrants and the possibility of the warrants getting issued. This is because the BAI has secured all key evidence, including exclusive internal documents of the government, and ever since the prosecution began its open investigation in July, it has been searching the presidential archives for almost two months.

A senior prosecutor-turned-lawyer stated, “It’s not as if they’re spinning a hostage crisis as a defection to North Korea, and it seems highly unlikely that their preliminary judgment [that there was criminality] will be effective as the judgment was made with limited information.”

The lawyer also went on to call the prosecution’s request for an arrest warrant “puzzling,” seeing that the relevant parties are “civilians who are not authorized to access things such as the military’s internal networks and since there is no fear of flight risk.”

Another former prosecutor who worked in the same department added that the warrants are not likely to be issued since the relevant parties pose a low flight risk.

“If the warrants are issued,” they said, “it would essentially substantiate charges against ex-Cabinet members, which could mean that the investigation could be expanded to bring in people such as the former president, Moon Jae-in.”

Another lawyer pointed out that since it is the first arrest warrant filed against a bigwig public figure since the appointment of Song Gyeong-ho as the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, if this request is rejected, the investigation will lose a lot of steam.

In a briefing at the National Assembly, Park Sung-joon, spokesman for the Democratic Party, criticized the situation, saying: “As if in response to the BAI’s report, the prosecution requested a warrant a mere five days after the report was released. Despite investigating the case for five months, what have you got to show for it? These arrest warrants are being requested to humiliate the people involved.”

By Jeon Gwang-joon, staff reporter

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