[Column] It’s time for Yoon to make a choice

Posted on : 2024-07-11 17:46 KST Modified on : 2024-07-11 17:46 KST
While he may be able to avoid the National Assembly sending him the Marine special counsel bill, he won’t be able to escape the outrage of the Korean people
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at the US Indo-Pacific Command at Camp HM Smith in Hawaii on July 9, 2024, (local time). (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at the US Indo-Pacific Command at Camp HM Smith in Hawaii on July 9, 2024, (local time). (Yonhap)


By Seong Han-yong, senior staff writer

On Tuesday, President Yoon Suk-yeol once again vetoed a bill to assign a special counsel to investigate alleged interference in an inquiry regarding the death of a Marine corporal. This was the second time he’d vetoed the bill, following once during the 21st National Assembly, and came a mere four days after the legislature transferred the bill to his desk. Yoon’s exercise of his veto also happened to come just one day after the Gyeongbuk Provincial Police Agency cleared former 1st Division Commander Lim Seong-geun of all charges for the incident. Yoon exercised his presidential veto directly after Prime Minister Han Duck-soo formally proposed a veto against the bill. 

Shortly afterward, reporters assigned to the presidential office beat received the following mass text: 

“Announcement: President Yoon Suk-yeol has approved a motion passed at a Cabinet meeting presided over by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo to reconsider a bill that would assign a special counsel to look into the death of a Marine who died in the line of duty. We have concluded that the political opposition is attempting to unilaterally push through the special counsel bill, in spite of the results of a police investigation announced yesterday that reveal the truth and actual responsible parties behind the incident, and that the bill must be withdrawn. We must not tolerate any further attempts to exploit the tragic death of a Marine, who died while serving his country, for political purposes. We once again mourn the death of the Marine corporal, and express our condolences to his family. -Office of the Press Secretary.”

What does this mean? The police investigation revealed the truth and the actual responsible parties? Since when is a police investigation equal to a verdict from the Supreme Court of the Republic of Korea?

No matter how pressed you are, attempting to justify the retraction of a special prosecutor bill with the results of a police investigation is fallacious logic. The fact that they sent the statement out in a mass text, as opposed to via a face-to-face press conference, shows that they cannot utter such words with a straight face. 

Professional negligence by Lim Seong-geun is not the key issue in the death of Corporal Chae. The important question is why, and by whose orders, materials from the Marine Corps investigative team handed over to the police with the approval of the minister of defense were then snatched back, and whether these materials were resubmitted once Lim’s name had been struck from them. These are the facts that matter. It’s not a case of occupational negligence. It’s a case of abuse of official authority. 

If it turns out that the president, in his anger, ordered the retrieval of such documents, then it is Yoon who is guilty of abusing his official authority. Article 123 of the Republic of Korea’s Criminal Act states, “A public official who, by abusing his official authority, causes a person to perform the conduct which is not to be performed by the person, or obstructs the person from exercising a right which the person is entitled to exercise, shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than five years and suspension of qualifications for not more than ten years, or fine not exceeding ten million won” (— or about US$7,250).

If it turns out that Yoon appointed former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup as the ambassador to Australia to cover up his crimes, he will be guilty of additional crimes other than abuse of authority. 

To clear up some confusion, let’s go back to the beginning of the incident. If the police had held on to the documents provided by Marine Corps investigators, and proceeded with their investigation with such documents in hand, how would things have turned out? Nothing would have happened. 

If even the police had cleared Lim of all charges, that’s the purview of the police. The same goes for if the police had acknowledged charges of professional negligence and then prosecutors had indicted him, only for courts to pronounce him innocent. That would have been the court’s purview. 

If, as many people suspect, Lim was taken off the suspect list at the orders of an enraged president, people will ask, “Why would President Yoon do such a thing?” It’s evident that first lady Kim Keon-hee fielded some complaints on the matter, but that isn’t everything. 

The most plausible explanation is the idea that ignorance is bliss — and knowledge can punish you. It falls along similar lines as the idea of the “curse of knowledge” or the “curse of expertise.”

There’s a hypothesis that the more experienced a driver, the more likely they are to be involved in a traffic accident — precisely because of the confidence that comes from their years behind the wheel. Another hypothesis goes that cats are overrepresented among animals that become roadkill because they overestimate their own speed and agility. 

Yoon Suk-yeol is a lifelong prosecutor. He rose through the ranks to head up the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office and serve as prosecutor general for the nation. There’s no doubt that he believes himself to be the foremost expert on what laws can be applied to what suspicions to mete out punishments. 

But it seems that he’s forgotten that it was he who prosecuted President Park Geun-hye on charges of abuse of authority for meddling in appointments within the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Tourism, and heralded the case through to a conviction in the Supreme Court. There’s simply no other explanation for what we’re seeing. 

How on earth does Yoon plan to clean up this mess he’s made? There’s no avoiding a special counsel at this point. Even if he can manage to evade the National Assembly re-passing the bill, he won’t escape the public’s outrage. 

While he may have exercised his veto, there’s still a chance for bipartisan compromise. He can sit down in person with Lee Jae-myung, or he can leave it up to the floor leaders of the ruling and opposition parties. We need to see the same sort of efforts that were made for the Itaewon Special Act. 

Yoon needs to accept the proposal by Han Dong-hoon, the former ruling party interim leader, to have a third party, such as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, appoint a special counsel. That’s his only hope. But he doesn’t have much time. I urge him to make the right decision. 

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

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