[Editorial] Independent investigation is only way to find truth in Marine death cover-up

Posted on : 2024-07-09 18:03 KST Modified on : 2024-07-09 18:03 KST
The commander of the division that saw a Marine die during flood rescue endeavors last year was let off the hook by police investigating the case
Lim Seong-geun, the commander of the 1st Marines Division, speaks to the press after being questioned by police in relation to the alleged cover-up of the death of a Marine in summer 2023. (Yonhap)
Lim Seong-geun, the commander of the 1st Marines Division, speaks to the press after being questioned by police in relation to the alleged cover-up of the death of a Marine in summer 2023. (Yonhap)

The provincial police investigating the death of a Marine surnamed Chae who died in July 2023 during flood rescue work released the results of their probe, which exonerated the deceased’s former division commander, Lim Seong-geun.
 
Almost all the evidence, including the statements of field commanders and phone calls made at the time as well as the circumstances of the search, demonstrate that Lim was negligent. However, after dragging out the investigation for nearly a year, the police recommended indicting field commanders but excluded Lim from those charges. This is precisely the outcome hoped for by the parties who exerted external pressure on the initial investigation into Chae’s death. It is hard to fathom that the police expect the public to believe such an obvious miscarriage of justice. 
 
The Gyeongbuk Provincial Police Agency, which was tasked with the investigation, could not give a logical explanation for its decision to not seek charges against Lim on Monday.
 
While the police acknowledged that Lim acted as an on-site commander by visiting the site of the flooding in Yecheon, where Chae was swept away, and giving specific instructions on how to conduct the search, the police said, “Giving commands in the field can be seen as ‘outside’ his authority, but it was not an ‘abuse of authority.’” In other words, Lim did not abuse his authority because it was not his authority to exercise in the first place.
 
In addition, the police stated that when Lim encouraged field commanders to search for missing persons by “spreading out evenly to poke around everywhere thoroughly” and by wearing “chest-high waders,” that did not necessarily mean that Lim meant that the search be conducted in the water.
 
The reasoning is that these words appear in military manuals and are customary in search operations, but were misunderstood by field commanders. The field commanders, as brigadiers and battalion commanders, have more than enough experience in the field. If all those officers misunderstood the division commander’s instructions, can we call that a well-functioning military?
 
The biggest winner of the police investigation is President Yoon Suk-yeol. The decision to single out Lim for exclusion from charges seems to have been made to prevent Yoon from being accused of exerting pressure on the initial investigation. 
 
Yoon is suspected of ordering Lim to be excluded from charges, having reportedly said, “If a division commander is prosecuted for something like this, who would want to be a division commander in the Republic of Korea?”
 
This outcome was all too predictable ever since the police, at the bequest of the presidential office, handed over the findings of the internal Marines investigation led by Park Jeong-hun, the former head of the Marine Corps investigation team, after it had been lawfully transferred, to the Prosecutors Office of the Ministry of National Defense. The police investigation results have demonstrated the urgent need for a special independent counsel probe.

Suspicions of an attempted cover-up of Park’s investigation ordered by outside forces have been backed up by a variety of evidence that has been brought to light during the trial of Park for insubordination. In fact, the outcome of the police investigation itself supports the idea that the Defense Ministry’s order to “not specify charges” was inappropriate outside pressure. This is because the very same figures that the Marines investigative team referred to the police for investigation were booked. The Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials must make haste with its own investigation into the alleged cover-up. 

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