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[Editorial] Reasonable doubt

CIO or president himself should clear all doubts over phone records, ex-defense minister's words

By Korea Herald

Published : May 31, 2024 - 05:30

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The former defense minister's telephone records drew renewed attention this week to suspicions that President Yoon Suk Yeol interfered with an inquiry into the death of a marine last year.

News reports revealed that the president spoke on the phone with then-defense minister Lee Jong-sup three times on the day the Marine Corps inquiry team handed over the results of its probe to the police. Lee also exchanged dozens of phone calls and text messages with senior officials of the presidential office including the chief of the presidential security service shortly after the ministry retrieved the case files from the police.

In July last year, Cpl. Chae Su-geun died after he was swept away by a torrent during a search mission for victims of heavy rain in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province. Col. Park Jung-hoon led the Marine Corps’ probe into why Chae and others went into the overflowing stream without life vests or ropes, and reported the results accusing eight people including the commander of the 1st Marine Division of manslaughter by occupational negligence to Lee. Lee signed off on the report on July 30, but the next day ordered the Marine Corps deputy commander to defer the case transfer to the police, citing a need for a legal review. Lee received a landline phone call from the presidential office on July 31, phone records obtained by Hankyoreh showed. The opposition suspects that Lee was told to get Lim Sung-geun, commander of the 1st Marine Division, off the list of those accused.

Park went ahead and referred the case to the police anyway on Aug. 2. Less than 20 minutes after the case transfer, a call was made to Lee from Yoon's private mobile phone that he had used since he was a prosecutor, and it went on for about four minutes, according to Hankyoreh. Lee said Wednesday that he made the order to have Park dismissed from his position at 12:12 p.m. That is just after he spoke with the president on the phone. Lee said, however, that the dismissal had to do with his earlier order to look into Park’s suspected insubordination which was made before his chat with Yoon.

Yoon called Lee again at 12:43 and 12:57 p.m. that day. Lee at the time was in Uzbekistan for work. The ministry collected the case files from the police later on the same day.

Lee also exchanged multiple phone calls and texts with Kim Yong-hyun, chief of the Presidential Security Service, between Aug. 4 and 7. It is unusual that the PSS chief, who has little to do with the Defense Ministry, spoke with the minister several times during this particular period.

Lee also spoke on the phone on multiple occasions with the minister of interior, the prime minister and other senior officials around the time he was mulling over what to do after retrieving Park's report from the police. The ministry’s inquiry team reviewed the case; accused only two battalion commanders; and referred the case to the police.

The ex-minister said in a statement sent to reporters by his lawyer on Wednesday that nobody told him to get Lim off the list of suspects, nor did he tell someone to do so.

His phone records, however, raise doubt. The Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials, which is currently investigating the case, must get the president and the former defense minister to clarify what they discussed. Or better yet, the president himself should tell South Koreans what happened. The people could understand if the president thought accusing eight people of manslaughter was too much, but they would not condone lies.

Even if the president ordered the defense minister to retrieve the files from the police, it is disputable whether his act legally construes an abuse of authority. But legal liabilities aside, the president must not forget that lies or lack of efforts to clear reasonable doubt could lead to bigger catastrophes.

The case wouldn’t have blown up had the defense ministry not collected the files from the police. Under the revised Military Court Act, the police, not the military, have the right to investigate the deaths of active-duty soldiers. If Park’s accusation against eight people of manslaughter was overreaching, the police and the prosecution could have sorted it out.

If the CIO or the president fail to present a sufficient explanation to clear all suspicions, they will only empower the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea as it pushes again for the special counsel bill to investigate the allegations of undue interference, which they can pass as they control a majority.