Critics say foreign appointment is aiding flight of ex-defense chief under investigation

Posted on : 2024-03-08 17:13 KST Modified on : 2024-03-08 17:13 KST
Lee Jong-sup, the former defense minister, was appointed as ambassador to Australia, but faces a travel ban in relation to an investigation into possible outside pressure on a probe into the death of a Marine last summer
President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) speaks to Lee Jong-sup, the former defense minister, during a ceremony marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory in the Battle of Incheon, held aboard the ROKS No Jeok Bong tank landing ship in the waters near Incheon Port on Sept. 15, 2023. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) speaks to Lee Jong-sup, the former defense minister, during a ceremony marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory in the Battle of Incheon, held aboard the ROKS No Jeok Bong tank landing ship in the waters near Incheon Port on Sept. 15, 2023. (Yonhap)

Lee Jong-sup, the former defense minister of South Korea, was suddenly called in for questioning by the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) on Thursday. Lee is the main suspect in allegations about outside pressure being brought to bear in the criminal investigation surrounding the death of a Marine last summer.

The CIO questioned Lee just one day after he was banned from leaving the country. Lee, whom President Yoon Suk-yeol has named ambassador to Australia, appears to have quickly agreed to be questioned to lay the groundwork for lifting his exit ban so he can begin his ambassadorship.

If Lee assumes his role as ambassador, that would basically require halting the criminal investigation into the allegations about outside pressure into the investigation of alleged negligence that resulted in the death of a marine during a search and rescue mission in response to major flooding last summer. Legal experts have criticized Yoon for appointing a key criminal suspect as an ambassador, which they say amounts to disregarding the judicial process and basically helping a criminal get away.

The CIO said it had questioned Lee on charges that he overstepped his authority and prevented individuals from exercising their lawful rights. The CIO slapped an exit ban on Lee and other key officials in January shortly before kicking off its investigation with raids on the homes of Yoo Jae-eun, general counsel at the Ministry of National Defense, and Kim Gye-hwan, the commandant of the Marine Corps.

Lee was brought in for questioning shortly after these facts were brought to light by media reports on the previous evening.

But Lee’s questioning does not appear to have been the sort that takes place in the course of a normal criminal investigation. The CIO had already carried out multiple searches of the homes of Kim and Yoo, along with Park Jin-hui, a military aide at the Ministry of National Defense, and prosecutors at the ministry, back in January, but it hadn’t even completed its forensic work or analysis of the seized items.

In addition, the CIO has yet to directly question either Yoo or Shin Beom-cheol, then vice minister of the Ministry of National Defense, who are key figures in the case. In effect, CIO prosecutors lack the testimony from people involved and other evidence they would need to properly question Lee Jong-sup.

As a result, this round of questioning seems to be mostly designed to create a pretext to lift the travel ban on Lee. “The normal approach in an investigation is to question the low-ranking people first to establish the facts and then to bring in the higher-ranking people, who are the chief suspects, to get their statement,” said an attorney with experience as a CIO prosecutor.

“Even worse, there’s little point in calling someone in for questioning if the forensic work on items collected in the raids isn’t finished. There’s a good chance they’ll use the fact that Lee has been questioned as an excuse to lift his travel ban,” the attorney added.

“Lee Jong-sup is the person they should bring in for questioning at the very end of the process. Bringing him in right now isn’t designed to get the truth out of him, but to clear the way for lifting the travel ban,” said a senior official in the prosecution service.

When a CIO spokesperson informed reporters on Thursday that Lee had come in for questioning, they added that “Lee had agreed to cooperate actively with our upcoming criminal investigation.”

The justice minister can request a one-month travel ban on people whom the head of a law enforcement agency thinks should remain in the country for a criminal investigation. By the same token, the minister can lift the travel ban after concluding that the reason for the ban no longer applies.

Thus, the fact that Lee is cooperating with the investigation could serve as grounds for lifting the travel ban.

The investigation into possible criminal negligence will inevitably hit a roadblock if Lee is appointed to the ambassadorship. Lee was the figure who, one day after authorizing a report by the Marine investigative team saying they would hand over Lim Seong-geun, the commander of the 1st Marine Division, to police on suspicions of occupational negligence resulting in death, reversed his decision. 

“I heard that the defense minister told the commander of the Marines that there was ‘nothing he could do about it, because the VIP [President Yoon] was outraged,’” said Park Jeong-hun, who formerly led the Marine investigation team. 

That suggests that Lee was a key suspect who could elucidate whether the outside pressure on the investigation originated from the president. 

During a policy coordination meeting held at the National Assembly on Thursday, Democratic Party floor leader Hong Ihk-pyo said that the decision to knowingly send Lee abroad despite the ban on travel he faces is “an admission that he was at the center of the outside pressure on the Marine investigation,” and an attempt to “help a key accomplice in a crime abscond abroad.”

“The president must retract his appointment of Lee as ambassador to Australia,” Hong demanded. 

Those in legal circles report being perplexed by the choice to appoint a suspect in a major incident to serve as an ambassador for a key country. 

“The president’s appointment of a key suspect as an ambassador flies in the face of the judicial order, and is tantamount to aiding a criminal escape,” said a lawyer who formerly served as a chief prosecutor. “It may feel pressured to, but there’s no need for the CIO to accommodate this. As a rule, the exit ban must be kept in place as long as necessary for the CIO investigation.” 

By Jeon Gwang-joon, staff reporter; Jeong Hye-min, staff reporter; Lee Woo-yun, staff reporter

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