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[Editorial] Independent probe

Prosecution dawdles on alleged AWOL by Justice Minister’s son

Suspicions are swirling regarding the alleged absence without leave of Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s son when he served in the military.

Choo’s son, 27, whose surname is Seo, did his military duty as a KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) soldier in the 2nd Infantry Division of the US Eighth Army in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, from November 2016 to August 2018.

In 2017 he took sick leave from June 5-14, extended it till June 23, took four days of annual leave (June 24-27), all of this successively, and returned to his unit on June 27.

There are no related records left at present. However, Seo is said to have taken the annual leave without receiving an order to leave. If this is true, he should have returned to his unit on June 23, 2017. He received no disciplinary action in connection with the leave, and got discharged the following year as scheduled.

The main opposition party raised the suspicion that he was able to extend the sick leave and then go on annual leave on doubtful grounds thanks to some external pressure. At that time, Choo was chair of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.

The “special favors” suspicion first surfaced ahead of her confirmation hearing as the justice minister nominee late last year. In early January, the opposition party accused her of obstructing justice in connection with her son’s leave. The accusation was filed with the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office, and the investigation is still going on.

This case is not so complex. Not many witnesses are involved. Choo even bluffed that the truth of this case can be found easily through “a simple investigation.”

But the Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office has dawdled on that simple case for more than eight months. It is hard to think of a convincing reason why the prosecutors are dragging their feet, except one -- Choo.

In June, prosecutors of the district questioned a captain who served in Seo’s unit as a Korean Army liaison officer in June 2017.

The officer reportedly told prosecutors that “at that time I received a phone call from an aide (of Choo’s) about leave extension.” But the prosecution omitted this important testimony from its official investigation report.

A lieutenant colonel who was also a Korean liaison officer connected with the unit at that time is said to have told prosecutors about the phone conversation between the captain and Choo’s aide, but revealed that what he stated was missing from the investigation report, too. If this is true, it is a de facto manipulation of an investigation report and it must be investigated. The omitted testimony is an important clue that may implicate Choo.

Normally, prosecutors would have secured the records of the phone conversation. The Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office remains silent about the suspected omission. Furthermore, it has not questioned Choo’s son yet.

This fuels the suspicion that the prosecution is trying to cover up the case.

In April, the chief prosecutor for the Seoul Eastern District was promoted to vice minister of justice.

The current chief prosecutor of the district sided with Choo in a blackmail case involving a former cable TV news reporter and a senior prosecutor close to Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl.

The chief prosecutor of the Seoul Eastern District is said to have requested that the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office dispatch back to the district the prosecutor and the investigating officer suspected of omitting relevant testimony from their investigation report. The chief prosecutor seems to be intent on making them participate in the investigation.

An impartial investigation can hardly be expected from this team.

New allegations are being raised in connection with Seo’s suspected AWOL incident. Choo’s office when she led the ruling party is said to have made a phone call to the Ministry of National Defense apparently to ask a favor in connection with the selection of PyeongChang Olympics interpreters from among KATUSAs.

The only way to find out the truth about the suspicions surrounding Seo and the Seoul Eastern District prosecutors who investigated his case is an independent investigation.

Prosecutor General Yoon should create an independent investigation team and command its investigation directly. If Choo blocks Yoon from doing that, the National Assembly should seek to appoint a special prosecutor. For a fair probe, Choo and prosecutors faithful to her must be excluded from any investigation into allegations involving her son.