Park blames woes on Choi Soon-sil’s boy toyPark Geun-hye is an innocent victim of a love affair gone wrong involving her longtime friend, the president’s lawyer said Wednesday at her impeachment trial.
“The scandal started when Choi Soon-sil, the president’s friend for 40 years - who was not a public figure - started a love affair with Ko Young-tae,” attorney Lee Joong-hwan said during the 10th hearing of Park’s trial at the Constitutional Court.
“After learning of the friendship between Choi and the president, Ko and his associates tried to go after their own private gains. After their attempts failed, they fed the media maliciously distorted facts and the scandal [against the president] started.”
On Dec. 9, 2016, the National Assembly passed a motion to impeach Park for allowing her secret inner circle including Choi to interfere in state affairs and for her alleged failure to properly respond to the sinking of the Sewol ferry on April 16, 2014, in which 304 passengers died.
Ko, a 40-year-old former fencing champion, is a former business associate of Choi, who is 60. They parted bitterly a few years ago, and Choi, during an earlier hearing in the trial, made the argument that he fabricated all the charges against her and the president.
The National Assembly’s impeachment committee, which acts as the prosecution in the impeachment trial, dismissed the argument.
“This is an attempt to cover up the essence of the scandal with an unconfirmed, sensational, trivial rumor,” Rep. Park Beom-kye of the Democratic Party, a member of the committee, said.
Following the argument, the Constitutional Court ordered the president to provide more specific explanations about her relationship with Choi.
“The president must explain more than just calling her a friend of 40 years,” Justice Kang Il-won ordered. “Park had said Choi helped her with speech writing and public affairs until her presidential secretariat was appointed. She needs to explain specifically how far and until when Choi did so.”
At the hearing, the court also examined other grounds for Park’s impeachment, including her alleged nonfeasance during the Sewol’s sinking. The court has shown special interest in Park’s specific whereabouts and actions during the crucial early hours of the tragedy, as she chose to stay in her residence instead of heading to her office or a crisis management center. From an early point in the tragedy, the news of the unsuccessful rescue efforts was broadcast live.
Kim Kyou-hyun, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and national security, said Park stayed in her residence because she failed to grasp the urgency of the situation. Kim, who was deputy head of the National Security Office at the time, said the Blue House did not see the situation as an emergency at the initial stage.
“The president cannot take part in the rescue operation personally, but isn’t it natural that she should at least go to the crisis management center and deal with the national crisis?” asked Justice Kim Yi-soo.
“We didn’t think the president needed to control the situation in person when the accident first happened,” Kim said. “We later learned that it was a disaster. No one thinks every situation is a crisis.”
Justice Kim repeatedly asked him why Park stayed in the residence and why presidential aides did not bring her to the office after it was obvious the situation was catastrophic. Kim repeated that written reports and phone reports were given to the president.
Kim also said the president should not be held accountable for a national disaster.
“The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the Paris terrorist attacks took place because the governments failed to detect the signs in advance,” he said. “I never heard that the president should be impeached for the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge [in 1994]. You cannot hold the president responsible for a major disaster in an advanced country.”
Kim blamed the operator of the ferry for having failed to respect safety regulations and the Coast Guard for making a poor assessment of the situation and failing to make proper and timely reports. “When the president ordered the head of the Coast Guard to dispatch special forces around 10:30 a.m., a rescue operation was already impossible,” Kim said. “But he did not report that accurately.”
“It is our belief that he should have told the president that a rescue operation was impossible,” Kim said. “Nevertheless, the president continued to make proper orders.”
Kim insisted that rescue efforts would have been effective before 9:30 a.m., but the ferry’s captain and crew failed to act in time. “If the students were ordered to wear life vests and escape around 9:15 a.m., they could have been saved, but the crew abandoned the ship and escaped,” he said.
The National Assembly’s impeachment committee and Park’s lawyers also had a fierce debate over the outgoing chief justice’s instruction that the trial must end before Justice Lee Jung-mi finishes her term on March 13 in order to protect the integrity of the trial by avoiding another vacancy.
Park’s lawyers protested that the president’s defense rights were infringed, but Rep. Kweon Seong-dong of the Bareun Party, who represents the impeachment committee, said a speedy ruling is desirable one way or another. “The constitutional government is completely paralyzed now, and if we were to accept the president’s case, she must want to get back to her job as soon as possible. Therefore, the trial must not be delayed.”
After the deadline was set, Park’s lawyers threatened to quit. Under current law, both parties involved in an impeachment trial - the National Assembly and the president - must appoint legal representation. If all of Park’s lawyers resign, she will have to appoint new attorneys and the trial will be stalled. The impeachment committee submitted its opinion to the court on Sunday that Park is an exception from the statutory requirement to be represented by a lawyer.
“In any proceeding where a private person is a party, such person shall not request adjudication or pursue the proceeding unless he or she is represented by a counsel who is an attorney,” Clause 3 of Article 25 of the Constitutional Court Act says. The National Assembly, however, said the president is an institution, not a private person.
“If all her lawyers step down, the trial will go on, and there will be no need for the state to appoint attorneys for her,” Hwang Jeong-geun, a lawyer for the impeachment committee, said Tuesday. “Because she is not participating in the trial right now, it can just go on with her absence.”
The court also elected Wednesday Justice Lee as the acting chief on Wednesday. Before starting the hearing, the remaining eight judges held a meeting and elected her, the most senior judge among them, as the acting chief justice.
BY SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]