Two former presidential officials were acquitted Friday of plotting to destroy the transcript of a 2007 inter-Korean summit in which the then South Korean president allegedly offered to surrender the western sea border.
Baek Jong-cheon and Cho Myoung-gyun, who worked at the presidential office under then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, had been accused of deleting the draft transcript from the presidential computer system, called E-jiwon, in 2008.
They had also been charged with failing to transfer the modified version to the National Archives of Korea at the behest of their boss. Both were seen as attempts to cover up what Roh actually said during the talks.
The Seoul Central District Court, however, cleared the two of the charges, saying the draft was not a presidential document and thus not subject to the same rules managing presidential records.
"Roh did not approve the draft and told them to review and modify parts of it, meaning it never became an official presidential document," Judge Lee Dong-geun said in the ruling.
The court also said destroying the draft was to be expected, acquitting the two of violating the law on public electronic records.
"Because the draft will never be used independently from the final version, deleting it is legitimate and not doing so would have caused confusion," the judge said.
Prosecutors had sought a two-year jail term for the pair.
The scandal surrounding the transcript started when a conservative lawmaker allegedly read parts of it during a campaign speech in the nation's second-largest city of Busan ahead of the presidential election in 2012.
He claimed that late President Roh suggested giving up the western sea border with North Korea, commonly called the Northern Limit Line (NLL), during talks with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, fueling fierce partisan strife over whether Roh actually made the remarks.
The NLL lies further into North Korean territory than the maritime border claimed by Pyongyang. Renouncing it would have meant offering the North a greater share of the Yellow Sea.
A search for the final transcript that should have been kept at the national archive ended inconclusive, as neither the conservative nor the liberal camp could locate it.
In June 2013, however, the state intelligence agency revealed its own copy of the final transcript, in which Roh says "I agree with (leader Kim Jong-il) that the NLL should be changed."
Interpretation of the statement has varied across the political spectrum. The pro-Roh camp at the time had said the copy owned by the National Intelligence Service differed from the one it knew of.
Following Friday's ruling, the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation, which commemorates the legacy of the late president, said the conservative Saenuri Party and the prosecution should be held accountable for making false accusations.
"The acquittal (of the two officials) was the only logical outcome possible," the foundation said in a statement. "It should be taken as the court's warning for the government and the prosecution against biased investigations and false accusations." (Yonhap)