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[Newsmaker] Independent counsel Park rises to fame

It took an exceptional investigation team to handle the corruption scandal involving an incumbent president -- a case turning the nation’s politics upside down.

Spearheading this challenging role was independent counsel Park Young-soo, whose leadership played a crucial role every time the inquiry into high-profile figures faced a dead end.
Park Young-soo, independent counsel (Yonhap)
Park Young-soo, independent counsel (Yonhap)

The special team looking into the corruption allegations of President Park Geun-hye officially ended its term Tuesday, indicting most of its remaining key suspects before handing the case over to state prosecutors.

Its attempt to extend the investigation was thwarted upon the rejection of the request by acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn and opposition from the ruling conservative Liberty Korea Party.

Despite the limitations it faced, in terms of time and jurisdiction, Park Young-soo’s special unit made pioneering steps in addressing the illegality of conglomerate chiefs and political big shots.

Its representative achievements included the arrest of Samsung Group’s heir apparent Lee Jae-yong and former presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-choon.

It was the process leading to the arrest of the Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee in particular which underlined the strong determination and bold action of the investigation leader Park Young-soo.

The investigators’ plan to first nail down the Samsung chief so as to close in the president’s bribery allegations seemed to face a barrier when the court dismissed the request for an arrest warrant for Lee in January.

The court’s rejection not only set back the investigation but also caused internal conflict, with anxiety growing that an attack against the nation’s most powerful conglomerate would boomerang at the team.

But the veteran investigator Park Young-soo did not back off.

During his years in the prosecution, especially those spent at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, he was reputed for his aggressive way of investigating high-profile corruption cases.

Nicknamed the “conglomerate sniper,” Park Young-soo had taken charge of the SK Group accounting fraud, which led to the arrest of Chairman Chey Tae-won in 2003, and the Hyundai Motor illicit fund cases in 2006, which was the single-largest corporate investigation in terms of amount involved.

Faced with the rejection of the arrest warrant, the chief investigator Park immediately realigned his team by holding individual meetings with each of the investigation units, urging them to dig further into the circumstantial evidence.

Due to such efforts, the special prosecutors succeeded in tracing the connection between the Samsung chief and former Ewha Womans University President Choi Kyung-hee, pivoting on President Park’s confidante Choi Soon-sil’s equestrian daughter, Chung Yoo-ra. It resulted in a charge that led to an arrest warrant for the businessman.

Park’s unfaltering inquiry into top powers inspired liberal politicians and opinion leaders, as well as a large part of the public.

“(Park’s team) has shown an example on how to handle high-profile corruption cases, in contrast to the (state) prosecutors who often served as henchmen to power,” Cho Kuk, a professor at Seoul National University’s law school, wrote on his Facebook account Tuesday.

Flower baskets, snacks and other gifts poured into the independent counsel headquarters -- especially after the court’s initial dismissal of Lee’s writ -- all from citizens sending words of encouragement to the investigators.

A point of irony is that Park Young-soo was appointed to the post by the president herself back in December, shortly before the National Assembly passed the impeachment resolution.

He had also come under fire earlier for his close ties with former Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Woo Byung-woo, one of the key figures in the extensive corruption scandal.

“Many speculate that Park, with his conspicuous achievements, will no longer stay in the legal circle but move into politics,” a senior lawyer said under anonymity.

Another rising star of the independent counsel team was senior investigator Yoon Seok-youl, who had initiated the investigation into the National Intelligence Service’s online smear campaign during the 2012 presidential election.

The given case had delivered a blow upon then-prosecutor in charge Yoon, who had been demoted for years until joining Park’s team late last year.

The spotlight was also on the assistant independent counsels, especially spokesperson Lee Kyu-chul who appeared in public almost daily during the 90-day investigation period.

By Bae Hyun-jung (