Im Jong-seok to face questioning on power abuse

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Im Jong-seok to face questioning on power abuse

Im Jong-seok, former presidential chief of staff, said Wednesday he will submit to the prosecution’s questioning as a criminal suspect on Thursday, criticizing Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl for abusing the power of his office for a “political purpose.”

Im, who served as President Moon Jae-in’s chief of staff from May 2017 till January 2019, posted a message on his Facebook to announce his decision to appear at the prosecution for an investigation into an allegation that top Blue House officials had abused power to influence the Ulsan mayoral election in 2018.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office spent the last two months investigating suspicions that aides to President Moon helped Song Cheol-ho to win the election in June 2018 by triggering a police investigation into his rival, then Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon, on possible corruption just three months before the race in order to sway public opinion. A month before the election, police referred the case to the prosecution, but prosecutors in March 2019 cleared Kim of any wrongdoing - and criticized the police for overreacting. The prosecution said Wednesday that it indicted 13 people including Ulsan Mayor Song, Ulsan Vice Mayor Song Byung-gi and former Ulsan Police chief Hwang Un-ha for election law violations.

Former Senior Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs Han Byung-do; former Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Baek Won-woo and former Presidential Secretary for Anticorruption Park Hyoung-chul were also among the indicted suspects.

Im, who agreed to show up for questioning on Thursday, and Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Lee Gwang-cheol, who appeared for questioning earlier in the day, were not indicted on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, Im said Prosecutor General Yoon and some prosecutors are recklessly pushing forward the case. “This is not an investigation, but more politics,” he said in his Facebook posting. “They were not going after objective facts. They are framing us with meticulous planning for a political purpose.”

Im said Yoon is concentrating too much power on this investigation, while other outstanding cases are ignored. “The prosecution raided the Blue House, the prime minister’s office, Finance Ministry and National Policy Agency,” Im said. “They obstinately summoned over 20 Blue House officials. The people will wait and see what outcome they will produce.”

Im warned that Yoon must seriously think about if he were meddling in politics and upcoming elections with the current probe.

Im also complained that the prosecution was manipulating the media. Although he had presented reasonable excuses to the prosecution on why he wants to delay the questioning, prosecution sources gave the impression to the press that he was avoiding the questioning, Im said.

In November, shortly after the prosecution began the investigation into the Blue House, Im made a surprise announcement that he will retire from politics. That decision fueled speculation that he will not run in the April 15 general election in order to protect the ruling Democratic Party (DP) from attacks concerning his suspected role in the scandal.

After newly installed Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae conducted two massive reshuffles of the prosecution earlier this month and effectively dismantled the investigation team, Im resumed his political activity last week as a keynote speaker to promote the DP’s vision.

As DP Chairman Lee Hae-chan and former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon made public appeals to Im to run in the April 15 general elections, critics, including former Dongyang University professor Chin Jung-kwon, said Im was shamelessly planning a political return because the reshuffles have weakened the prosecution.

The prosecution said the Blue House is trying to undermine the legitimacy of the probe. “Evidence, including a personal notebook belonging to Ulsan’s Vice Mayor Song Byung-gi, showed the connection of the Blue House officials to the case,” said a prosecutor. “If we don’t investigate this, that’s what you call politics.”

Last month, the prosecutors seized the notebook from the vice mayor, the alleged source who gave a tip-off to a Blue House official, triggering the police investigation into then Mayor Kim’s aides in 2017. The 30-page notebook reportedly contained details of Song’s meeting with presidential aides to discuss Song Cheol-ho’s campaign.

“We conducted a search and seizure with warrants issued by the court,” the prosecutor said. “And we summoned suspects legitimately. They think they are above the law by challenging our investigation.”

Another prosecutor said it is the key members of the Moon administration who are abusing power. “They postponed the questioning for a month, but they suddenly decided to show up after [the Justice Ministry] demoted prosecutors who were investigating their case,” said the prosecutor. “If they were ordinary suspects, they could have not dreamed of such practice. Who is abusing power now?”

Sources in the prosecution told the JoongAng Ilbo that prosecutors have asked Lee Sung-yoon, the new chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office and an ally of Justice Minister Choo, on Tuesday to authorize the indictment of key suspects in the Ulsan mayoral election case.

On Wednesday, top prosecutors including Prosecutor General Yoon and Lee held a meeting, and Yoon authorized the indictments against 13 suspects.

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