It is a crime story with enough sinister plots that Bong Joon-ho or even Martin Scorsese might be interested in making it into a movie.
After several months of investigation, the South Korean prosecution under Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-yul indicted 13 people, including current and former senior secretaries of President Moon Jae-in, for abuse of power and violating the election law in relation to the Ulsan mayoral election in 2018.
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae involved herself in the affair by reassigning shuffling prosecutors engaged in the case and other cases of alleged misconduct in the present administration. She then declined to submit the full text of the indictment to the National Assembly in an attempt to prevent it from being made public.
Choo’s embargo was ineffective. The Dong-A Ilbo newspaper obtained the text from a source and shared it with other major news outlets, which published the material online. Like many other watchers of the Moon administration concerned about its “deterioration,” I carefully read the text and found myself wondering what a flawed system we still have to allow the distortion of public will in elections.
The story evolved from the political ambitions of Song Cheol-ho, 70, a 30-year associate of President Moon in the legal business in Southeastern Gyeongsang Province with a record of eight losses in mayoral and parliamentary elections. He was at last elected mayor of the industrial city of Ulsan in the previous local election through a clandestine operation to eliminate his main contender, helped by the new power elite.
The victim was Kim Gi-hyeon, 60, of the opposition Liberty Korea Party who was seeking reelection. Police raided his office in full view of media representatives on the day he won the party’s nomination. The prosecution dropped the corruption charges against him soon after he lost the election branded as a criminal suspect. In pre-election surveys, he had led by almost 2-to-1 against his rival.
Other actors in the drama included Song Byeong-gi, 57, campaign strategist for Song Cheol-ho, who collected information regarding the incumbent mayor’s and his brothers’ dealings with local construction businesspeople. He delivered the information to Blue House secretaries and then to the National Police Agency, inciting the Ulsan police to start a formal investigation.
Hwang Un-ha, 58, former chief of the Ulsan Metropolitan Police, urged his personnel to make a strong corruption case against Kim and provided the media with details of the charges against the mayor and his relatives.
The Fair Trade Commission also played a part by negatively concluding a long-delayed feasibility test for a project proposed by then-Mayor Kim to establish a general hospital for industrial disaster victims. Meanwhile, the Office of the Presidential Secretary on Balanced Regional Development approved a plan to build a general public hospital in Ulsan, which was a campaign pledge made by Song Cheol-ho. One can only guess how many votes the candidates earned and lost because of these actions.
Han Byeong-do, President Moon’s senior aide for political affairs, came in with an offer for a covetous job to Song Cheol-ho’s intraparty competitor in exchange for his withdrawal from the party nomination race. Im Dong-ho, chief of the ruling party’s Ulsan chapter, demanded the post of consul-general in Osaka, Japan. Han counter-offered the consul-general position in Kobe, Japan, or the CEO of any state-owned enterprise on condition of Im’s exit. He eventually withdrew but none of these offers have materialized yet.
Whoever reviews the above developments could not rule out the possible influence of President Moon in the background.
In 2014, Moon said that what he wanted most was to see “Song Cheol-ho get elected” after many election failures. Moon, then an opposition leader, was in Ulsan to help Song in a parliamentary by-election. Song, Moon and former President Roh Moo-hyun were active human rights lawyers in the Busan-Ulsan region, taking up many labor disputes and rights abuse cases.
Moon’s desire to help his friend in the political arena might have grown stronger after he became president. However, Moon should have realized that he actually had few legitimate means to help Song. The best thing he could do for Song, for example, was to introduce some competent campaign workers who he had tested in his own campaign, or give him personal advice on his public decorum. Presidency should be neutral, especially under the Republic of Korea Constitution, which provides a single five-year term.
The president could have chosen among three possible approaches to the Ulsan election. First, he could have strictly ordered Blue House aides to remain totally uninvolved with Ulsan or any other locale, leaving all support to the party. Second, he could have let his aides know his personal interest in specific constituencies, so they would feel obligated to help their boss’s favorite candidates. Third, he could have taken special actions in his power to provide his friends with political advantages.
The indictment text revealed there were numerous communications between Ulsan police and Blue House secretaries over the investigation of the mayor and therefore the possibility of the first approach is ruled out. The second and third are more likely. The president should at least take moral responsibility in the event of the second; he is impeachable in the third, as he would have taken part in breaching laws, ignoring his obligation for political neutrality.
The allegations in the Ulsan case reveal the worst type of interference in an election -- a systematic use of law enforcement authority to bury a bona fide competitor. In addition, they include the illegal offer of reward in the form of a government title for exiting from competition, as well as the discrediting of an opponent by denying the feasibility of his proposal.
Who orchestrated the negative and positive actions to get the president’s close friend elected will be disclosed in the course of the trial of the 13 defendants. The prosecution’s investigation has already exposed the modus operandi of collusion between police and Blue House officials to deceive the electorate and infect the democratic system with the political virus of injustice.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.