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Partisan clashes over special probe into land development scandal intensify

Battles loom large over timing, scope of investigation, ahead of presidential elections

Lawmakers of the main opposition People Power Party call for special counsel investigation into the Daejang-dong land development scandal at a parliamentary audit held on Oct. 26.(Yonhap)
Lawmakers of the main opposition People Power Party call for special counsel investigation into the Daejang-dong land development scandal at a parliamentary audit held on Oct. 26.(Yonhap)
The ruling and opposition parties continue to clash over an independent counsel investigation into the Daejang-dong land development scandal, even after presidential hopeful Lee Jae-myung said he is open to the probe on conditions.

The partisan collision over the timing and scope of the special prosecutor’s probe intensifies, with less than four months until the March 9 presidential elections.

The main opposition People Power Party has reiterated that a special probe led by an independent counsel should kick off immediately.

Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, the party’s floor leader, on Friday said the parties should meet to discuss the introduction of the independent counsel probe “at the earliest possible time” without being subject to any formalities or conditions.

But the Democratic Party of Korea stance is that the special probe can be the subject of discussion only if the prosecution’s investigation is found to be insufficient and incomplete.

Rep. Koh Yong-jin, the ruling party’s spokesperson, on Friday clarified that the party will not consent to discuss the issue until the prosecution’s ongoing investigation is complete.

“If the results of the investigation are insufficient, we can push ahead with an independent counsel probe. But it is not right at this stage (to begin consultation),” Koh said.

The leadership of the ruling party had ruled out the possibility of discussing a probe by a special prosecutor that could have implications for Lee, but it has begun bracing for the possibility of consultation on the issue.

The sudden shift in its rigid stance came immediately after Lee on Wednesday said he would conditionally accept the request for a special counsel investigation at a public debate forum hosted by the Kwanhun Club.

Lee said it is “imperative” to get to the bottom of the scandal “more completely and thoroughly” in any form, including an independent counsel investigation, if the prosecution’s investigation “leaves any loose ends or questions.”

Since Lee’s abrupt change in stance, the rival parties have also engaged in conflict over the scope of the special probe. The Democratic Party argues the independent counsel probe should be extended to investigate misconduct allegations surrounding Yoon Seok-yeol, the opposing presidential candidate of the People Power Party. But The main opposition party denounced the ruling party for trying to buy time and cloud the issue by attaching conditions.

Lee has accused Yoon of excluding the now-bankrupt Busan Savings Bank from the investigation on sloppy lending for the Daejang-dong land development project in 2011 when he served as the prosecutor in charge of the case. Lee claims that Yoon attempted to gloss over signs of corruption in the project.

But Yoon on Thursday rejected Lee’s claim and refuted, saying that Lee seeks to “muddy the waters by attaching preposterous conditions.”

Meanwhile, eyes are riveted on whether and when prosecutors summon and question Kwak Sang-do, who officially lost his parliamentary seat and immunity from arrest after the National Assembly approved his resignation at Thursday’s plenary session. This also raises the question of whether prosecutors will make a breakthrough in their deadlocked investigation.

Kwak offered to resign after his 32-year-old son was found out to have received 5 billion won ($4.24 million) in severance pay in March after working for Hwacheon Daeyu for around six years. Hwacheon Daeyu participated in the Daejang-dong land development as a private partner and earned astronomical profits from a mere 1 percent stake.

Kwak is suspected of receiving bribes from the company in return for providing business and political favors.

Amid ongoing challenges, prosecutors on Thursday extended the detention period of Kim Man-bae and Nam Wook to Nov. 22. They are the two key suspects in the land development scandal and the largest and second-largest stakeholders of Hwacheon Daeyu.

Kim and Nam will be released if the prosecution fails to indict them before their detention period expires, but prosecutors appear to be facing difficulties in making an advance in the investigation.

Since Kim and Nam were arrested on Nov. 4, prosecutors questioned Kim only once as of Friday noon, as Kim did not comply with a summons for investigation, citing health issues. In addition, seven prosecutors and investigators on the team dedicated to the development scandal were also confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19.

The trial of Yoo Dong-gyu, which was set to begin Wednesday, has also been postponed to Nov. 24, as the court accepted the request of the prosecution to change the date for thorough preparation.

By Ji Da-gyum (