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Park, parliament lock horns in impeachment trial

Legal representatives of President Park Geun-hye and the parliament clashed at the Constitutional Court Thursday for the first time, in what is expected to be a long, drawn-out litigation war on the legitimacy of the president’s impeachment.

The embattled president was dealt a blow during the first preliminary proceedings, as the court turned down her objection on its request to the investigators for files related to the corruption and influence-peddling scandal Park is believed to be involved in. The National Assembly on Dec.9 passed a motion to impeach Park on her involvement in the scandal. 

Three justices of the Constitutional Court take their seats for the first pretrial hearing of President Park Geun-hye's impeachment trial in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Three justices of the Constitutional Court take their seats for the first pretrial hearing of President Park Geun-hye's impeachment trial in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Last week, the judiciary requested the prosecution and independent counsel Park Young-soo’s team provide complete records of their investigation into the Choi Soon-sil scandal, named after the president’s nongovernmental confidante who is believed to have illegally interfered in state affairs and embezzled public funds.

President Park claimed it was in violation of a Constitutional Law that bans the transfer of files related to an ongoing investigation or trial.

Justice Lee Jung-mee of the Constitutional Court cited a clause that says the impeachment trial would follow legal proceedings outlined for criminal procedures, which says the court can decide to ask for files from authorities if necessary.

“Even though the investigation record may not be the only evidence, it can be prominent in the trial,” said Justice Lee Jin-sung.

The court also selected Choi and Park’s former aides, An Chong-bum and Jeong Ho-seong, as witnesses for the trial. An is suspected of conspiring with Choi and Park on their illegal activities -- including coercing local conglomerates to raise money for an organization related to Choi -- while Jeong allegedly leaked government secrets to Choi on Park’s orders.

Choi and An have been called upon by the parliament multiple times to appear at hearings for the scandal, but they have repeatedly snubbed the requests.

The court outlined the five main grounds for impeachment, on which both sides agreed. They are: disregard for people’s sovereign rights and rule of law; abusing presidential authorities; infringing upon freedom of press; violating duties to protect lives of people; and criminal activities including bribery.

The court in particular requested Park personally work to uncover the truth behind her “mysterious” seven-hour absence in the aftermath of a 2014 ferry sinking that left 304 dead or missing.

The accusation that Park neglected her duty in a control tower role during the disaster to save lives -- specifically pointed out in law -- has been among the biggest hurdles she has faced in the scandal.

“Even though two years have passed, most Koreans can vividly remember what they did that day considering the special circumstances. ... I ask (Park) to state where she was in Cheong Wa Dae, exactly what she did, what reports she received and what orders she gave,” Justice Lee Jin-sung told Park’s legal proxies.

The next preliminary proceeding is scheduled for Tuesday.

Another engine revving to thrust Park out of office is the suspicion of bribery and favoritism given to Choi and her family, which the special investigative team led by the Independent Counsel was working on Thursday.

Special counsel Park’s team as of Thursday was investigating the National Pension Agency on relation to cash-for-favors allegations surrounding Choi’s family and Samsung Group. The team has already questioned several of Samsung’s high-ranking officials.

There have been suspicions the NPS supported the merger of Samsung C&T with Cheil Industries -- both companies the NPS holds shares of -- under pressure from the president.

Samsung is believed to be the biggest benefactor of the Choi family, which includes financial support for Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, a dressage rider.

Lee Kyu-cheol, a spokesperson for the special counsel team, said during Thursday’s briefing that his team was working to forcibly bring Chung back from Germany, where she is believed to be residing.

The team plans to request cooperation from German law enforcement to cooperate in apprehending Chung.

He said Chung had been put on a wanted list as of Wednesday, and said any acts helping her escape justice or destroy evidence would be punished by law.

The investigative team requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nullify Chung’s passport, and the ministry said it plans to order Chung to turn in her passport.

If she does not comply within the designated period, the passport will be nullified, ministry officials said.

By Yoon Min-sik (