[Reporter’s notebook] Better late than never to summon Korea's first lady for questioning

Posted on : 2024-06-18 16:50 KST Modified on : 2024-06-18 16:50 KST
The general public is suspicious of the fairness of prosecutor-led investigations — if they don’t summon the first lady now, it will only trigger more intense blowback
Participants in the second international forum for the International People’s Tribunal on 1945 US Atomic Bombings pose for a photo in Hiroshima, Japan.
Participants in the second international forum for the International People’s Tribunal on 1945 US Atomic Bombings pose for a photo in Hiroshima, Japan.

“When you think it’s too late, that’s when it’s really too late.” 

This is a famous line from comedian Park Myung-soo during an episode of the reality show Infinite Challenge.

Park followed up, however, with, “Since it’s too late, you may as well start now.” 

Rather than relying on hackneyed self-help mantras that tell you “better late than never,” Park opted for a more realistic viewpoint: When you think it’s too late, there’s no time to lose. 

Park’s words are still quoted today. 

Among prosecutors, there is a case that often makes people say, “It’s too late.” It’s the case of suspected stock manipulation of Deutsch Motors shares involving first lady Kim Keon-hee. 

Investigations into these allegations began in April 2020, when former National Assembly lawmaker Choe Kang-wook filed a report. In December 2021, prosecutors indicted former Deutsch Motors Chairman Kwon Oh-soo. Prosecutors also called for the first lady to appear for questioning, but she declined. Yoon Suk-yeol then became the People Power Party’s presidential candidate and won the election, and the investigation fizzled out. 

Four years have passed since Choe’s report, and 16 months have passed since the initial verdict. Yet there is no news of the investigation or potential punishment. Gone with the wind. The case has been dragged out into the swamp of unsolved cases. Prosecutors vowed to resume their investigation into the first lady after a ruling was issued on the appeal. They likely have a lot of factors to consider, such as the statute of limitations or the possibility of a hidden financial backer. Yet it’s only in front of the first lady that prosecutors have demonstrated such trepidation and rumination.  

When the initial verdict in the case on interference in the Ulsan mayoral election was announced, prosecutors moved quickly to resume the investigation under a higher prosecutorial office. During the trial regarding violations of election law by Kim Hye-kyung, the wife of Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, prosecutors waited for the second verdict on her accomplice before indicting her, but they had already conducted their questioning via summons.  

As the case dragged on, we eventually stopped hearing about the Deutsch Motors stock manipulation case, and the world started focusing on whether the first lady would be summoned for questioning. Over the past two years, prosecutors have made some decent gains in their investigation into the alleged vote-buying scheme at a Democratic Party convention. This stands in stark contrast to their investigation into the first lady. 

With the Democratic Party and opposition parties’ victory in the recent general election, it’s likely we’ll see a second legislative movement to limit the authority of prosecutors. The general political mood is suspicious of the fairness of prosecutor-led investigations. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, if prosecutors do not proceed with their summons of the first lady, they will likely face severe political blowback. 

At the beginning of this year, Yoon suddenly replaced Song Gyeong-ho, the chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. Last month, Yoon conducted a complete overhaul of prosecutorial leadership. The overwhelming consensus is that these personnel shuffles were designed to stall or block the investigation into the first lady. Consequently, prosecutors are currently stuck between a rock and a hard place. The word on the street is that prosecutors are kicking themselves for not issuing a summons against the first lady as soon as he was elected.

Now, we are seeing the prosecutors in a race against time. Prosecutor General Lee One-seok, who has called for a swift and decisive investigation into the first lady’s acceptance of a luxury handbag in a possible violation of anti-graft laws, will be replaced in September. The process for selecting his successor will begin shortly. Despite his call for a swift conclusion to the Deutsch Motors investigation, the prosecutor general does not have direct authority over it. Lee’s expedited removal is likely an indirect pressure tactic against the prosecutors’ Deutsch Motors team. 

The facts behind the luxury handbag case are likely to be revealed before the end of the month, and the pleading in the appeal against the initial Deutsch Motors verdict will conclude at the beginning of July. Because it’s already too late, there’s no time to lose in the cases against Kim Keon-hee.

By Jeong Hye-min, staff reporter

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

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