Two key aides to ousted President Park Geun-hye, among the few who had avoided criminal investigation despite their suspected involvement in a corruption scandal, were apprehended Tuesday on fresh allegations they received bribes from state spy agency officials.
Ahn Bong-geun (left), Lee Jae-man
The prosecution detained Ahn Bong-geun and Lee Jae-man, both 51, the closest and longest-serving aides to Park, with court-issued warrants. Prosecutors suspect the ex-presidential secretaries took bribes from the National Intelligence Service between 2013 and 2016 under the Park administration.
Prosecutors searched 10 locations, including residences of Ahn, Lee, three former chiefs of NIS -- Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-ki and Lee Byung-ho -- and former Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun, as part of the investigation into the alleged bribery.
The prosecution said it will question Ahn and Lee over why they received money from the NIS’ officials and how they used it. It did not confirm the amount of the bribes, but said it was enough for the court to issue an apprehension warrant for them.
Lee Hun-soo, a former senior official at the spy agency, was said to have testified earlier during questioning that the spy agency had given 1 billion won each year ($890,000), totaling 4 billion won, to key officials at the presidential office since Park took office.
The money was from the agency‘s budget allotted for “special activities,” such as probes requiring confidentiality for security reasons. For such reasons, money for special activities could be spent without proving how or why it was used.
Ahn and Lee, along with now-jailed former presidential secretary Jeong Ho-seong, have been dubbed the “doorknob trio” due to their close ties to Park. They had served Park since she entered politics in 1998.
As they were presidential secretaries at Cheong Wa Dae during Park’s presidency, there was speculation they had been closely involved in the process of leaking state secrets to Park’s friend Choi Soon-sil and helping her meddle in state affairs.
But Ahn and Lee did not face an investigation for their alleged involvement in the corruption scandal. They were indicted without detention in July only for refusing to appear at last year’s parliamentary hearing on the scandal.
Jeong, accused of leaking presidential documents to Choi, is awaiting a court ruling, scheduled for Nov. 15.
In connection with allegations ex-President Park took bribes from local conglomerates in the form of donations to entities controlled by Choi and let Choi interfere with state affairs, many of Park’s ex-presidential secretaries, ex-ministers and business tycoons have been investigated, arrested and are now also standing trial.
Park herself was removed from power in March, following months of massive rallies demanding her resignation or removal over the scandal. She faces 18 charges, including bribery, extortion and abuse of power under detention. Choi is also being tried on charges of bribery and extortion.
The investigation into the corruption allegations, which surfaced late last year, is still ongoing under the Moon Jae-in administration, with a new focus on the NIS.
The spy agency under former President Lee Myung-bak, Park’s predecessor, is suspected of having meddled in the 2012 presidential election to help Park win the race. The agency is also being probed for allegedly drawing up a blacklist of liberal artists deemed critical of the Lee government and implementing it to discriminate against them. It is also suspected of sponsoring pro-government civic groups to mobilize them in favor of conservative administrations.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea called for a thorough investigation into Ahn and Lee, while the main opposition parties said the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration should also be subject to a probe.
“Ahn and Lee monopolized absolute power, but they were not held legally accountable. For their private interests, they destroyed the public system,” said Rep. Cho Eung-chun of the Democratic Party during a parliamentary audit on Tuesday.
“Beyond political bias, there should be a fair investigation in accordance with legitimate procedures. The ex-NIS chief Kim Man-bok under the Roh administration should also be probed,” Rep. Oh Sin-hwan of the minor opposition and conservative Bareun Party said.