Spy agency monitored Constitutional Court during impeachment trial: SBS

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Spy agency monitored Constitutional Court during impeachment trial: SBS

Opposition parties demanded Sunday an investigation into a report that the National Intelligence Service started illegal surveillance of the Constitutional Court shortly after it began the impeachment trial of President Park Geun-hye.

According to an exclusive report by the Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) Saturday, the National Intelligence Service started an operation to spy on the Constitutional Court early this year. A former senior official of the state-run intelligence agency told SBS that an NIS official who has collected information on the judiciary in the past conducted the operation.

Immediately after the National Assembly impeached Park on Dec. 9, 2016, the court started the president’s trial. After a series of hearings over the past months, the court heard closing arguments on Feb. 27, 2017 and started deliberations on whether to remove Park from office.

According to the report, the NIS official met with officials of the Constitutional Court and members of the judicial community to obtain information on the judges’ opinions of the impeachment trial. He briefed superiors on the possible ruling based on the intelligence he gathered, the report said.

If such an operation took place it is illegal because the law governing the spy agency bars it from collecting domestic information if it doesn’t relate to North Korea, terrorism or espionage.

The National Intelligence Service denied the report. An official of the Constitutional Court told SBS that even if the spying operation took place, it will not affect the judges’ deliberation.

Following the report, opposition parties including the Democratic Party, the People’s Party and Bareun Party called the alleged surveillance operation a “grave crime.” They said the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee should hold a meeting immediately and conduct an investigation.

Moon Jae-in, the Democratic Party’s presidential frontrunner, posted a message on Facebook condemning the Park administration. “The idea of launching illegal surveillance of the Constitutional Court at this sensitive timing is shocking,” Moon said. “It must not be condoned.”

Ahn Cheol-soo, former chairman of the People’s Party, said the alleged operation is a serious challenge to democracy. “We must lay bare the truth and punish the responsible people,” he said.

The conservative opposition Bareun Party also condemned the NIS for attempting to influence domestic politics. “If necessary, a National Assembly investigation and a prosecution probe must take place to lay bare the truth,” said Rep. Oh Shin-hwan, spokesman of the party.

The ruling Liberty Korea Party, however, said the NIS has denied the report, and it is wrong for the opposition parties to use the allegations for political gains.

The Constitutional Court continued its deliberation on the impeachment case Sunday, and speculations grew that a ruling may be announced this week. Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi and four other judges came to the court on Sunday to review the case.

Meanwhile, Park’s lawyers attempted to explain why she took so long to visit to a crisis management center on the day of Sewol ferry’s sinking by citing a car accident. They quickly recanted the claim after questions were raised about a video recording of the alleged accident.

The lawyers submitted Saturday an additional piece of evidence to the Constitutional Court to explain why Park’s visit to the Central Disaster Management Headquarters came after 5 p.m., although the ferry accident took place in the morning of April 16, 2014.

The president’s alleged nonfeasance in the rescue operation of the Sewol is one of the grounds used by the National Assembly to impeach her in December. The legislature also accused Park of allowing her inner circle to secretly interfere in state affairs.

Throughout her trial, 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 going to her office or the Central Disaster Management Headquarters. Her visit to the crisis center was initially scheduled for 3 p.m., but she arrived at 5:15 p.m.

In the report submitted to the Constitutional Court, Park’s lawyers said the president’s visit was delayed because a car rammed into the gate of the Central Disaster Management Headquarters. The lawyers said the accident took place shortly before her scheduled visit, and she was only able to go once the situation was settled. The lawyers also submitted a video recording of the accident.

Skepticism, however, rose quickly because the car captured in the video looked undamaged. Hours later, the lawyers changed their story and said a parked car was moved from the compound before her visit. The video had no date stamp.

Jongno Police Precinct also confirmed to local media that there was no accident.

The lawyers submitted the new report at the demand of the Constitutional Court. At the beginning of the trial, the court demanded Park submit a detailed report on her whereabouts and actions “without any omission.” A report was submitted on Jan. 10, 2017, but the judges said it was insufficient and demanded a better one.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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