DUP raises tough questions about justice nominees

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DUP raises tough questions about justice nominees

The Supreme Court plans to welcome four new justices this week to replace those who retired yesterday, but not without a fierce struggle between the ruling and opposition parties regarding the qualification of the nominees.

In a long-stalled process, the first confirmation hearing kicked off yesterday in front of a special committee at the National Assembly with Ko Young-han, 57, vice minister of the National Court Administration. Kim Byung-wha, 57, head prosecutor at the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office, will appear today. Kim Shin, 55, head judge of the Ulsan District Court, and Kim Chang-suk, 56, president of the Supreme Court Library, will appear tomorrow and Friday, respectively.

But the appointment of the new justices comes with a string of accusations from the main opposition Democratic United Party that has strongly questioned the character and credentials of the nominees. The DUP has also criticized the nominees for all being conservative, pro-conglomerate middle-aged men with similar educational and career backgrounds.

Chon Soo-an, a retiring justice who is set to be replaced, also criticized the makeup of the nominees. With Chon off the bench, there is only one female justice remaining on the court out of 13 seats. At the hearing yesterday, Ko was grilled about whether he unfairly ruled in favor of Samsung Heavy Industries in a case involving a major oil spill off the coast of Taean County in South Chungcheong - the worst ever in Korea. In the incident in December 2007, a Hong Kong oil tanker collided with a Samsung barge. Courts eventually granted Samsung Heavy Industries limited liability in 2009 of only 5.6 billion won ($4.9 million) instead of 2.6 trillion won.

In regard to the ruling, Ko said he did “not neglect any provisions of the law” and said that indeed, the “fine under commercial law is too low and should be revised through legislation.”

Previously, the DUP targeted Kim Byung-wha, who is slated for a hearing today, stating that while Kim was a prosecutor with the Busan and Ulsan district prosecutors’ offices between 1988 to 1992, he falsely registered his resident as being in Yeongdeungpo District, southwestern Seoul, and received perks while buying an apartment in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. The DUP asserted that Kim bought a 465 million won ($408,000) Samseong-dong apartment in 2000 for half the price and that he also bought a Busan apartment with similar privileges.

In response to the allegations, Kim stated he once registered his residence using his wife’s parents’ address in Daerim-dong, Yeongdeungpo District, but that it was not for real estate investment or other for-profit purposes.

Kim’s 28-year-old disabled son has also come under public scrutiny for enlisting in alternate service for his two-year military commitment. As part of his work, the son was assigned to the Seoul Central District Court in 2010.

According to medical documents submitted to the Military Manpower Administration, Kim’s son was found to be disabled in December 2006 because of a spinal injury. But the DUP pointed out Monday that the hospital treating the son didn’t recommend surgery and only prescribed pain relievers.

“It seems like a ploy to evade military service,” the party said bluntly.

At a press conference at the National Assembly on Sunday, the main opposition party also raised concerns about alleged proselytizing by nominee Kim Shin.

DUP Representative Choi Jae-cheon declared that Kim was not fit to become a Supreme Court justice because he has let his religious beliefs interfere with his judiciary duties. The representative said Kim has prayed after hearings and once claimed that a 2001 earthquake in India was a warning from God.

The four judges were nominated last month by the Supreme Court chief justice to replace the retiring justices - Park Il-hwan, Kim Neung-hwan, Chon Soo-an and Ahn Dae-hee.

They will not be permitted to take on their new roles, however, unless a motion to approve their appointments is passed in the National Assembly next Monday.

“It is regrettable that the procedure for replacing justices has not been completed and that we are just in the confirmation hearing process even though our retirement date was set six years ago,” former Justice Kim Neung-hwan said yesterday.

By Sarah Kim [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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