The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Watch CIO probe

Veto of ‘Marine death’ bill reasonable; Opposition party keen on political attacks

By Korea Herald

Published : July 11, 2024 - 05:30

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President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday vetoed a bill mandating a special counsel investigation into alleged external pressure on the military response to a Marine’s death. It is a reasonable veto.

A bill for a special counsel probe of the case was first proposed by the main opposition party and passed the previous National Assembly, but Yoon sent it back to the Assembly on May 21. It failed to pass an Assembly re-vote on May 28.

The Democratic Party of Korea proposed a modified version of the bill to the new Assembly but this time it was vetoed, too. In the new bill, the party expanded the investigative rights of the special counsel.

In July last year, Marine Cpl. Chae Su-geun died after being swept into the rapids during an operation to help search for civilians missing in heavy rain. The Marine Corps probed the death and referred the outcomes of its own probe to the police for reference. The opposition party suspects that the presidential office put some pressure on the Marine Corps over its investigation.

Though the police investigation did not concern the issue of external pressure, its results have weakened the case for a special counsel inquiry.

The police cleared Lim Seong-geun, the then-commander of the 1st Division of the Marine Corps, of charges of abuse of power and negligent homicide. As a direct cause of the accident, they pointed the finger at a battalion commander who changed search guidelines arbitrarily. The police hold a view that Lim, the highest-ranking Marine Corps officer involved in the case, may be held responsible morally and politically but not judicially. This was the result of 11 months of investigation by the police, which also took counsel from the investigation deliberation committee of outside experts.

When a soldier dies in an accident, investigators should find out who is responsible, and those found responsible should be punished accordingly. Causes of an accident must be identified, and steps to prevent recurrence have to be taken. In Chae’s case, however, applying accidental homicide to the division commander goes too far. Investigators should avoid making the error of holding an officer unfairly responsible for the death of a soldier simply because he or she holds a high position on the chain of command.

The opposition party criticizes the results of the police investigation, but the police investigation focused on what caused Chae’s death and who is criminally liable. As for whether there was outside pressure, it would be wise to wait and see what happens during the ongoing investigation by the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO).

A special counsel investigation would not be late even if it begins after the CIO probe is found to be insufficient or flawed. Furthermore, considering that a case like Chae's death is not so complicated, it would be a waste of resources to restart the investigation now through a special counsel.

In addition to widening its powers, the second bill authorizes that the special counsel be chosen by opposition parties only. The ruling party has no right to recommend a candidate. The accuser is filing a complaint and attempting to run its own investigation as it pleases. The latest bill also allows special counsel to investigate not only the case but all issues that can be derived from it, even if they are unrelated to the case. The party cannot but avoid criticism that the bill is focused more on mounting a political attack on Yoon than on finding the truth about the accident.

Which party argued that a new agency like the CIO is needed for the country and rushed through a related bill? The Democratic Party. The party revised the law to stop the military from carrying out official investigations into fatal accidents involving soldiers and require it to refer such cases to the police. The party also introduced the investigation deliberation committee system.

At present, the party’s argument that only a special counsel can clarify suspicions is less than convincing. The party should not make third or fourth tries for a special counsel probe before the ongoing CIO investigation is done.