President Park Geun-hye’s lawyers submitted a statement to the Constitutional Court on Tuesday explaining her actions during the Sewol ferry disaster, but the court asked them to present a detailed report, saying the explanation fell short of what it had demanded.
She was impeached by lawmakers on Dec. 9 over a corruption scandal and allegations that she neglected her duties during the ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing.
Her explanation about her whereabouts on the day of the accident is an important basis on which to rule whether to uphold or overturn her impeachment. One of the impeachment charges against her is the violation of Article 10 of the Constitution, which stipulates the presidential duty to protect the life of the people.
But her explanation of what happened is flimsy and hard to accept.
It concerns what she did during the roughly seven hours from the time of her alleged receipt of the initial report on the accident to the time of her appearance at the disaster control center.
According to the explanation, Park initially received a written report at around 10 a.m. on April 16, 2014. Kim Jang-soo, then the chief of the National Security Office, prepared it.
A passenger called the 119 emergency services number to report the accident for the first time at 8:52 a.m., then a local cable TV network broke the news at 9:19 a.m. Park’s lawyers did not explain why she received the report about an hour later.
The court ordered them to submit an additional explanation on whether she watched news on TV before receiving the report.
Coalition 4.16 on the Sewol Ferry Disaster, a group of families of the deceased in the incident and civic activists, have doubted the initial report time, citing communication made between Cheong Wa Dae and the Coast Guard at 9:22 a.m. The interval between the communication time and the first report time was not explained. Park’s lawyers did not explain, either, why she took more than two hours to visit the National Disaster and Safety Status Control Center, which is only about 10 minutes’ drive from Cheong Wa Dae, after she had told officials that she would visit the center. She gave the notice of her visit at 2:50 p.m. and visited the center at 5:15 p.m. Her lawyers asked to be excused from explaining her whereabouts during the time, saying such information was classified.
According to the statement, Park was briefed on the disaster face-to-face by her aides Ahn Bong-keun and Jeong Ho-seong. But it did not describe the time and content of the briefings. Park also telephoned Kim Jang-soo and later Kim Seok-kyun, then chief of the Korea Coast Guard, and ordered them to take rescue measures by mobilizing all possible resources. But her lawyers did not present evidence that she telephoned them on that day.
The civic group disputed her explanations, arguing that Kim Seok-kyun had not definitively answered a question whether he had received a call directly from Park during a hearing on the disaster.
In response to criticism of Park’s working at the residence and not at the office on the day of the ferry sinking, her lawyers said that she often worked at her residence, as former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun had. The comparison is a stretch. Kim and Roh worked at the residence mostly after-hours or on holidays, while she often worked there, including on the day when the ferry sank.
TV footage of her dialogue with an official at the disaster control center puts the statement of her explanation in question. Park had said, “I was told everybody (on the ship) was wearing life jackets. So, is it so difficult to find them?” An official replied, “We are in a situation where life jackets are useless because the students are in the ship.” Park responded with a nod, “Ah. In the ship.”
The conversation indicates that she did not know that students were confined to their cabins and that she thought they were scattered floating on the sea, wearing life jackets, in the hopes of being noticed by rescuers. If she had watched TV that day, she would not have asked such a question.
What did she really do for the seven hours? Did she actually receive the report as she said? Did she really order the mobilization of all available equipment to the scene as she claimed? Naval or marine equipment was nowhere to be found at the site of the incident on that day.
Her slack explanation will only anger the people, amplify suspicions and prolong the trial.
The Constitutional Court is trying hard to proceed quickly with the impeachment trial, considering its gravity. Park should not seek to prolong the proceeding by obfuscating her explanation or answers. The fastest way for Park to explain her whereabouts would be to appear in court and testify with evidence.