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[Editorial] Evidence ignored

Judicial independence threatened by defiant reactions to ruling on Moon’s confidant

Silence and overreaction have characterized the responses of President Moon Jae-in and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, respectively, to last week’s court ruling that found a confidant to Moon guilty of being involved in a massive online opinion-rigging scheme in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election.

And Chief Justice Kim Myeong-soo has remained ambiguous in responding to the threat by ruling party lawmakers to seek to impeach the judge who sentenced South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo to two years in prison.

Last year, the governor was indicted by a special counsel for colluding with a power blogger nicknamed Druking to raise the number of “likes” on internet political comments, in a bid to sway public opinion in favor of Moon, then an opposition presidential contender. Moon won the snap election, which came after his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was ousted from office by the Constitutional Court over an influence-peddling scandal.

The ruling by the Seoul Central District Court has the potential to deal a heavy blow to Moon and the ruling party.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party has since raised questions about the legitimacy of Moon’s election, demanding that he clarify whether he had known about the online opinion-rigging scheme.

However, Moon has kept silent about the court ruling and the opposition’s demand. He made no specific comment after he was briefed on the ruling by his chief of staff on Jan. 30, according to a presidential spokesman. Moon made no mention of the ruling in his Lunar New Year’s message released Saturday.

The presidential office has taken the stance that it will wait for the final judicial judgment, in an effort to distance itself from the aftermath of last week’s court verdict. Kim’s lawyer has said he will appeal.

Still, Moon and his aides seem to be showing their discomfort by making no efforts to keep ruling party lawmakers from refuting the ruling and launching personal attacks on the judge who handed it down.

They have denounced the ruling as a politically charged decision, noting that Seong Chang-ho, the presiding judge in trial over the opinion-rigging case, worked as a secretary for a former chief justice who was arrested last month on charges of power abuse.

Ruling party legislators have threatened to undertake the process of impeaching Seong and other judges, whom they arbitrarily defined as “corrupt forces in the judiciary.”

Needless to say, such defiant reactions deny judicial independence guaranteed by the Constitution. They also contradict the party’s praise of previous court rulings -- some by Seong -- that punished wrongdoings by Park and her associates.

Above all, the ruling party has turned a blind eye to evidence cited by the court in finding Kim guilty. The governor watched a demonstration by the blogger’s crew of a prototype program designed to increase the number of “likes” on selected comments by tens of thousands. Kim was regularly briefed by Druking on its progress and gave the final go-ahead for the operation.

It may be too much to say the online opinion-rigging scheme played a decisive role in Moon’s election victory but the illicit operation certainly affected the presidential race.

Therefore, it needs to be clarified whether Moon knew about the operation. It is a reasonable suspicion that Moon was kept informed of it, as Kim was known to be reporting to him on almost everything related to preparations for his presidential bid.

Instead of waiting for the completion of the legal process, Moon needs to look for a proper way out of the opinion-rigging scandal to prevent it from haunting him until he leaves office and thereafter. It would be an unwise choice to harden his stance and to become uncompromising with the opposition in coping with political offensives over the illicit cyber operation.

Last but not least, Chief Justice Kim’s lukewarm and ambiguous response to political attacks on the judge in Kim’s trial should be criticized as an inappropriate attitude. After days of keeping silent, he told reporters that public criticism of a court ruling should be permitted and can be desirable but that it is improper for such criticism to be expressed in an excessive manner and to lead to personal attacks on a judge. He ignored a request to comment on the claim that the governor was the victim of a “revenge trial by a corrupt judge.”

He has no one else to blame for criticism spreading in the judicial circle that he seems to be a presidential secretary rather than a chief justice.