Constitutional Court demands to know where Pres. Park was on the day the Sewol sank

Posted on : 2016-12-23 13:21 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Park’s unaccounted for whereabouts for seven hours are key part of push for Park’s swift impeachment
 Lee Jung-mi and Kang Il-won take their seats at the Constitutional Court in Seoul’s Jongno district on Dec. 22. (pool photo)
Lee Jung-mi and Kang Il-won take their seats at the Constitutional Court in Seoul’s Jongno district on Dec. 22. (pool photo)

The Constitutional Court demanded on Dec. 22 that President Park Geun-hye give an exhaustive account of her “public and private duties by the moment” during a seven-hour period which is not yet accounted for on Apr. 16, 2014, the day of the Sewol ferry sinking.

“[Park] surely knows better than anyone what she was doing at the time of the Sewol tragedy,” the court said. It was a case of the court asserting its authority to demand a detailed explanation after Park’s previous unclear responses on the seven-hour period, which was cited as one of the chief grounds for her recent impeachment. It also began paving the way for an aggressive and swift impeachment review from the first open hearings by condensing the 13 grounds for impeachment given by the National Assembly into five categories.

Trial looks to be swift

Argument procedures began at 2 pm on Dec. 22 with National Assembly Legislation and Judiciary Committee chair and impeachment committee member Kweon Seong-dong, eight impeachment committee representatives, and seven representatives of Park in attendance as three justices Lee Jung-mi, Kang Il-won, and Lee Jin-sung entered the courtroom. The three justices were assigned the task of organizing all of the complex issues and evidence in the case prior to the full scale hearing, with Lee Jung-mi in charge of legal “traffic management” for the arguments, Kang in charge of organizing issues, and Lee Jin-sung in charge of evidence. Together, they had no difficulties moving the roughly 40-minute-long first preparatory procedure along.

The three justices first announced they would be dividing Park’s impeachment trial into five categories: violations of popular sovereignty and Constitutionalism through interference by confidante Choi Sun-sil and other members of the behind-the-scenes organization, abuse of presidential power, infringement on media freedoms, violation of the duty to protect the right to life, and criminal violations such as bribery.

“At the time of the only precedent with Case No. 2004-CC-B1 [the impeachment of then-President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004], rulings on the impeachment grounds were made by category rather than individually,” noted Kang, chief judge for the case, in requesting the agreement of petitioner (the National Assembly) and petitionee (Park). In its impeachment vote, the National Assembly cited five Constitutional violations and four violations of the law by Park in a total of eight accusations. An advantage of assigning them to categories rather than approaching them separately is that the court can make a simultaneous decision on various Constitutional and legal violations based on one piece of evidence or fact - allowing the review to proceed faster.

The court also made it clear it would exercise its authority to direct the review proceedings by adopting evidence even without the agreement of the parties, along with an argument-based approach of hearing the petitionee’s opinions on each matter.

“Both sides have requested a swift review out of concerns of a government vacuum,” Kang explained.

“While it is the court’s determination that an impeachment trial must also be founded in a party- and argument-based approach, the nature of a Constitutional Court trial is such that direct authority must be strengthened in some respects,” he said. His message was that the court could move to assert its authority to nip any stalling tactics by Park’s team in the bud, such as demanding the investigation of evidence.

Justices (from left to right) Lee Jin-sung
Justices (from left to right) Lee Jin-sung
“The President herself knows best about the seven hours”

Justice Lee Jin-sung broached the topic of Park’s unaccounted-for whereabouts for seven hours on the day of the Sewol sinking.

“With regard to safeguarding the public’s right to life, which was one of the grounds for impeachment, little to date has been ascertained about President Park’s activities at the time of the Sewol sinking,” he noted.

“Although more than two years have passed since the Sewol sinking, it remains a day of great significance, and the majority of South Koreans would be able to recall what they were doing on that day,” Lee continued in his request to Park’s representatives. “The petitionee [Park] surely also has a distinct memory of it.”

“We are certain the petitionee knows better than anyone where she was in the Blue House during the seven hours in question, what specific affairs she tended to, which reports she received and when, and what response orders she issued. She must give an exhaustive account and submit any documentation that may exist.”

In a briefing after the hearing, Park’s attorney Lee Joong-hwan said he would “ask and confirm” with Park.

Kang also made reference to Park’s admission in an Oct. 25 address to the public that she had “received Choi Sun-sil’s help in the period before the Blue House advisory system was fully in place.”

“With regard to the behind-the-scenes organization, it is unclear to what specific extent and in what ways [Park] was assisted,” he said, ordering Park’s team to “provide a future response as to when the Blue House advisory system was ‘fully in place’ and to what extent help was received.”

Choi among witnesses selected

Three witnesses were selected at the Dec. 22 hearing, as requested by both the impeachment committee representatives and Park’s team: Choi, former Blue House Senior Secretary to the President for Policy Coordination Ahn Jong-beom, and former Blue House personal secretary Jeong Ho-seong. The Constitutional Court Act imposes penalties of up to a year in prison and up to one million won (US$830) in fines if a witness does not appear without legitimate reason when summoned. One possibility that cannot be ruled out is that Choi could appear without saying anything in particular in her testimony - as in the case of Choi Do-sul, who appeared as a witness in the Roh impeachment trial but refused to testify.

As evidence, the court adopted the prosecutors’ indictment of Choi and 49 media reports as requested by the impeachment committee and three “Statements from the President” requested by Park’s team. Park’s camp was previously dismissive of the indictment, which it said was “nothing more than the prosecutors’ opinions according to the principle of presumed innocence,” and the reports, which it called “indiscriminate muckraking allegations.”

The court also dismissed objections from Park’s representatives that it was against the law for it to request investigation records from the prosecutors and special prosecutor. At the request of the National Assembly impeachment committee, it did request certified copies of investigation records for Choi and others from prosecutors, with plans to conduct a documentary investigation - in which the chief judge himself would go to visit the prosecutors to investigate - if they are not received.

“There are reports in the media that attorneys in the Choi Sun-sil case have already acquired investigation records,” said Lee Jin-sung. “If it is the case that the investigation records are already ‘on the market,’ we respectfully and strongly urge the prosecutors to send them.”

At the same time, the court said it would be restricting the National Assembly from future disclosures of documents related to the trial. Park’s team previously objected to the impeachment committee team’s disclosure of Park’s response to the Constitutional Court claiming she had “done nothing wrong.”

“According to the Criminal Procedure Act, there is a principle of nondisclosure prior to the opening of a trial, and it is inappropriate for the petitioner to arbitrarily decide to disclose the petitioner’s documents,” said Lee Jung-mi.

Constitutional experts who observe the preparatory proceedings on Dec. 22 said the petitionees seemed “caught off guard” by the evidence selection. The second round preparatory procedures begins at 2 pm on Dec. 27.

By Kim Nam-il, Kim Min-kyung and Hyun So-eun, staff reporters

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