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Sewol committee’s plan to probe president sparks controversy

Controversy escalated Tuesday over an independent investigative committee’s decision to track President Park Geun-hye’s whereabouts on the day the ferry Sewol sank last year, with Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party lashing out at the panel for politicizing the issue.

On Monday, the Sewol Special Investigation Committee said it would look into how Cheong Wa Dae reacted to the emergency and what Park was doing for seven hours after the doomed ferry began to sink off the nation’s southwestern coast on April 16, 2014. The president will be subject to the investigation if it is relevant to the case, the committee said.

The decision brings a heated political debate back on the president who has been countering allegations that she had been away from the presidential compound when the tragedy occurred.

Cheong Wa Dae has said that Park was in her office on April 16 last year while she received multiple reports on the accident.

In one of the worst maritime disasters in South Korean history, the sinking of the ferry left 304 people dead or missing. Most of its victims were high students headed toward the resort island of Jejudo.

The Sewol Special Investigation Committee holds a meeting on Monday, after members picked by the ruling Saenuri Party walked out in boycott of the panel`s decision to probe President Park`s whereabouts on the day the ferry Sewol sank off last year. (Yonhap)
The Sewol Special Investigation Committee holds a meeting on Monday, after members picked by the ruling Saenuri Party walked out in boycott of the panel`s decision to probe President Park`s whereabouts on the day the ferry Sewol sank off last year. (Yonhap)


Calling it an “unconstitutional idea,” the presidential office blasted the committee for having the president on the investigation list. The Constitution stipulates that the incumbent president is exempt from being accused of criminal activities, unless he or she instigates a rebellion or external disturbances.

“The special investigative committee should be faithful to its duty, and stop politicizing the issue away from its unconstitutional viewpoint,” said Park’s spokesman Jeong Yeon-kuk.

The ruling Saenuri Party demanded all members of the special investigative committee to step down, accusing them of crossing the line.

“The committee, showing no interest in investigating the cause of the accident and instead focusing on Cheong Wa Dae, appears to have an ulterior motive aimed at politicizing the Sewol issue, rather than working on ways to improve institutional measures to build a safer society,” said Saenuri floor leader Won Yoo-chul.

Other ruling party lawmakers refused to attend a parliamentary committee meeting on agriculture and maritime affairs where the special panel was to brief on the developments, and threatened that they would consider dissolving the Sewol committee.

The 17-member committee consists of 10 members picked by the ruling and the main opposition party, three family members of the victims and four legal experts recommended by the Supreme Court and the Korean Bar Association.

The decision on Monday came after the members close to the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy pressed to include probe into Park’s whereabouts on that day. Of the 13 members attending, nine members approved, including five members recommended by the NPAD, while four members close to the ruling party boycotted the meeting.

The members recommended by the opposition said the plan of tracing Park’s whereabouts does not infringe upon the Constitution because it is not aimed at filing a criminal charge against the president.

The ruling party members, meanwhile, vehemently opposed the idea, saying it would eventually lead to a criminal investigation against her.

By Cho Chung-un (christory@heraldcorp.com)

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