Ruling party votes down special counsel probe, shielding president

Posted on : 2024-05-29 17:06 KST Modified on : 2024-05-29 17:28 KST
The National Assembly revoted on a bill for the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe alleged obstruction efforts and cover-ups in the investigation of a Marine’s death after the president’s veto earlier this month
A Marine who served in the reserves with Col. Park Jeong-hun sits in a crowd with others at a rally calling for the passage of a special act to assign a special counsel to probe alleged government interference in an investigation into the death of a Marine in 2023 held in downtown Seoul on May 25, 2024. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
A Marine who served in the reserves with Col. Park Jeong-hun sits in a crowd with others at a rally calling for the passage of a special act to assign a special counsel to probe alleged government interference in an investigation into the death of a Marine in 2023 held in downtown Seoul on May 25, 2024. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)

The National Assembly voted down a bill on Tuesday for the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe alleged obstruction efforts and cover-ups in the investigation of a Marine’s death during flood rescue efforts last year. 

President Yoon Suk-yeol had previously exercised his authority to request reconsideration of the legislation. 

Critics blasted the ruling People Power Party (PPP) as throwing itself on a grenade for the president even after suffering a rout in the recent general election, with over 60% of the South Korean public expressing support for the special counsel legislation. 

Opposition parties’ announcement of plans to pursue the act once again when the 22nd National Assembly kicks off on Thursday has observers predicting a confrontation with the ruling PPP. 

During the 21st National Assembly’s last regular session on Tuesday, the legislation for a special prosecutor to investigate the case was submitted for a vote by secret ballot. The bill ended up failing to pass with 179 of the 294 lawmakers present voting in favor and 111 against, with four invalid votes. 

The bill ended up being rejected after failing to meet the threshold of two-thirds of votes (196) with at least half of registered lawmakers present, which is necessary to approve legislation once the president has exercised their veto powers. 

Of the 10 bills for which Yoon has exercised his veto authority, the number rejected after being sent back to the National Assembly rose to nine, the one exception being a special law on a renewed investigation into the October 2022 Itaewon crowd crush. 

The focus of the special prosecutor act was to be on assigning an independent prosecutor to investigate and determine whether the presidential office, Ministry of National Defense, and other parties exercised pressure to conceal or distort investigation findings by the Marine Corps investigation team tasked with probing the death of a Marine corporal — identified by his surname Chae — during a July 2023 search for missing persons amid flooding in North Gyeongsang Province. 

The legislation was initially introduced by the Democratic Party in September of last year. While it eventually passed the National Assembly on May 2, Yoon exercised his veto powers on May 21, citing the need to “first observe the outcome of the investigation by police and the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials.” 

Commenting on the results of the voting Tuesday, the PPP said it had “kept the number of breakaway votes [in favor of a special prosecutor] to a minimum.” The Democratic Party had predicted around nine breakaway votes from the PPP, but the final number ended up being smaller. 

As it happened, the breakdown of 179 votes in favor of the bill and 115 counted as opposing or invalid ended up coinciding exactly with the ratio of 179 opposition-affiliated lawmakers present and 115 belonging to or aligning themselves with the PPP. 

Five PPP members who had previously announced openly that they intended to back the bill — Ahn Cheol-soo, Yu Eui-dong, Kim Woong, Choi Jae-hyeong and Kim Geun-tae — affirmed to the press afterward that they had indeed cast votes in favor. 

Remarking on the bill’s failure to pass, PPP floor leader Choo Kyung-ho said, “When it has come to matters selected as the party platform, [the lawmakers] have presented a unified vote and unified ranks.” 

After the vote, Democratic Party floor leader Park Chan-dae attended a gathering by representatives of six opposition parties on the National Assembly Central Hall’s staircase to denounce the outcome. 

“Today witnessed an all-time disaster in the National Assembly, where the public’s voices were trampled in the name of preserving a scrap of power,” he declared, announcing plans to “resume the pursuit of a special act as soon as the 22nd National Assembly commences.” 

The regular session on Tuesday also saw the opposition pass five pieces of legislation with PPP lawmakers absenting themselves from the process. The bills, which had been the subject of deep differences between the ruling party and opposition, included one for a law on the “respectful treatment of persons of merit in democratization” and a special law for assistance to victims of key deposit fraud, which contained measures offering restitution ahead of collection. 

The PPP said it planned to advise Yoon to exercise veto powers on those bills. 

By Sun Dam-eun, staff reporter; Shin Min-jung, staff reporter; Kang Jae-gu, staff reporter 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr

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