DP wants judges purged after Kim’s conviction

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DP wants judges purged after Kim’s conviction

The ruling Democratic Party (DP) on Wednesday called for a purge of corrupt forces in the judiciary after accusing a judge who sentenced one of its leading figures to prison of being in league with a former chief justice currently in jail on power abuse charges.

After watching South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo being hauled away in a prisoner transport vehicle following an unexpected conviction for an online opinion-rigging scandal Wednesday, the DP’s floor spokesman Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo directly challenged the court ruling, calling it the result of “a revenge-bent trial by forces corrupting the judiciary.”

The governor was found guilty of colluding with Kim Dong-won, a well-known political blogger better known by his internet alias Druking, to jointly orchestrate a major opinion-rigging campaign on social media in support of Moon Jae-in’s presidential bid in the 2017 elections.

While Kim Kyoung-soo was widely expected to receive some form of punishment, few - including Kim and the DP itself - expected a two year prison sentence and his immediate detention.

Kim will be removed from office if he loses an appeal at the Supreme Court, as per election law.

Following the surprise conviction, one of the governor’s lawyers read a hastily-drafted statement to the press which questioned the neutrality of the presiding judge over the case - Seong Chang-ho - on the basis of his personal affiliation with former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae.

That claim was echoed by DP floor leader Rep. Hong Young-pyo on Thursday in an open policy meeting at the National Assembly. “Yang’s corrupt cabal remains in control of key positions in the judiciary,” Hong said, “and is systematically resisting” a backlash following a massive power abuse scandal in the judicial branch.

“[Wednesday’s] verdict on Gov. Kim stands as an extension of this [resistance],” Hong said.

The ruling party’s misgivings about Seong are based on the fact that he worked as a secretary to former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae for two years from February 2012 to 2014. Their accusation implies that Seong’s decision to imprison Kim is revenge for Yang’s own arrest last week.

Yang, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court from 2011 to 2017, is currently awaiting trial at the Seoul Detention Center on several dozen charges of power abuse that include meddling with ongoing trials to curry favor with the former administration.

Rep. Park Ju-min, the head of a hastily assembled special committee tasked with purging “corrupt elements” in the judiciary, said Wednesday that Seong, as well as “many of the judges in the Seoul High Court who will try [Kim’s] appeal are affiliated with judicial corruption.”

According to Park, the fact that Kim’s sentencing was inordinately delayed until this Wednesday showed that Seong was waiting to see whether his former boss would be placed under arrest last week. Seong had been questioned as a witness by the prosecution in Yang’s case and his name was also included among a list of judges who allegedly collaborated in Yang’s power abuse in the prosecution’s writ for one of Yang’s main deputies, Park added.

The lawmaker and his fellow DP committee members stressed that they will prepare major judicial reform measures that includes a “personnel purge.” This means “impeaching those judges linked to Yang’s power abuse who have not received any form of punishment,” Park said.

Floor leader Hong did not answer questions from reporters on Thursday as to whether Seong would be one of the judges the party would try to impeach.

The idea of the ruling party directly challenging a court decision shocked some legal analysts and figures within the judiciary, who said the DP’s calls for judicial reform at this time would undermine the legitimacy of the courts, especially as a result of a court ruling it does not like.

On the condition of anonymity, one judge of a district court said the ruling party’s actions were an infringement on judicial independence - one of the key principles behind recent calls for judicial reform.

“[They are] politicizing the verdict and asking for impeachment of judges for biased reasons,” he said. “What judge can act freely in this environment filled with external pressure?”

Another judge at a high court had even harsher words for the DP. “[These are] actions that undermine the basis of the rule of law,” he said. “This is a move by political forces to tame the judiciary.”

Still others have taken fault with claims that Seong’s conviction and sentencing of Kim were motivated by personal loyalties, given his history of doling out convictions to political figures belonging to the Park Geun-hye administration. Seong was the judge who sentenced former President Park herself to an eight-year prison sentence last July over meddling in her party’s candidate nomination process and wasting government funds. Park’s former Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon, former Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun, and three of her former spy chiefs were all given prison sentences by Seong.

Such concerns were echoed by the opposition, particularly the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), which took Gov. Kim’s conviction as an opportunity to dial up their offense on the Moon administration.

Calling for Kim Kyoung-soo’s immediate resignation as South Gyeongsang governor, around 40 LKP lawmakers staged a public demonstration on Thursday near a fountain outside the Blue House where they demanded the presidential office reveal how much Moon knew about the opinion-rigging scandal. The LKP’s interim leader, Kim Byung-joon, argued that Kim’s trial proceeded in an objective legalistic manner and that the DP’s questioning of its fairness violated judicial independence and contested the constitutional principle of the separation of powers.

“This is a declaration of war [towards the judiciary] by the ruling party, which wants to put the judicial branch staffed by those with a certain political orientation under current Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su inside its pocket,” said LKP floor leader Na Kyung-won at the demonstration.

One LKP lawmaker, Rep. Yeo Sang-kyoo, went as far as to demand a special counsel investigation into Moon’s links to the opinion rigging scandal based on the president’s close relationship to Kim Kyoung-soo, who served as Moon’s aide during the presidential elections.

With the DP challenge to Kim Kyoung-soo’s conviction adding another dimension to the political debate over judicial reform, there is now more uncertainty than ever on whether corruption and misconduct within the judiciary can be addressed.

Many analysts say the DP’s decision to link the two issues could backfire and deflate long-standing calls for reform by inviting a heavy pushback from sitting judges.

Meanwhile, civic groups continue to press for impeachment for those judges close to Yang.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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