South Korean Marine’s death threatens to impeach president

South Korean Marine’s death threatens to impeach president

South Korean marines were deployed after heavy monsoon rains flooded rural areas in the country’s central region last July, searching for missing residents in waist-high water but without life jackets, buoys or life tubes.

The ground gave way and five people were swept away into the swirling brown water. One of them, Corporal Choi Soo-geun, disappeared downstream screaming for help and was later found dead.

Nearly a year later, the 20-year-old Marine’s death raised the threat of impeachment for South Korea’s leader, President Yoon Seok-youl, and the possibility of political instability in a country that is a key U.S. ally in building a bulwark against North Korea and China.

Tragic accidents are not uncommon in the South Korean military, but this incident has escalated into Yoon’s first major political crisis since the ruling party’s crushing defeat in last month’s general election. The career soldier who investigated Choi’s death has accused the Defense Ministry of covering up the investigation and absolving the military’s top brass of responsibility — all because of pressure from Yoon.

Yoon has not directly addressed the allegations, and the president last week vetoed a bill pushed through parliament by the opposition to set up a special prosecutor to look into the allegations. The president wants government agencies such as the police and prosecutors to finish investigating the various allegations before discussing other measures.

But surveys show that the appointment of a special prosecutor has broad public support, and many South Koreans distrust Yoon and government prosecutors. Yoon’s opponents say prosecutors have launched criminal investigations into Yoon’s critics and journalists accused of spreading “fake news,” but have not investigated corruption allegations against his wife, Kim Kun-hee, with the same zeal. (This scandal, along with a series of others, contributed to Yoon’s poor performance in last month’s election.)

The opposition has warned that it will launch impeachment proceedings if Yoon continues to resist its demands.

“The Yoon administration must not forget the lessons of history,” said liberal opposition leader Lee Jae-myung, referring to former presidents who were jailed or impeached for corruption and abuse of power.

The opposition parties hold a majority in the new National Assembly, which opened on Thursday. They are expected to pass a new special prosecutor bill, but it remains to be seen whether they have the votes to override a presidential veto or whether there is enough public support and evidence of guilt to launch impeachment proceedings against Yoon.

A few days after Choi’s death, an investigation launched by the South Korean Marine Corps concluded that Choi and the other Marines had not been issued life jackets or safety tubes. The knee-high rubber boots they were issued restricted movement in the water, a safety deficiency the military acknowledged.

The investigation also concluded that eight superiors, including Maj. Gen. Im Seong-keun, commander of the 1st Marine Division, were responsible for Choi’s death through negligence. Then-Minister of Defense Lee Jong-seop approved sending the findings to the National Police for further investigation, as required by law. He approved plans for investigators to report to the press.

“But less than 24 hours later, all decisions were reversed and everything was thrown into chaos,” said lead investigator Col. Park Jeong-hoon.

Lee ordered Park to cancel a press conference scheduled for the next day. The Defense Ministry retracted the file Park had sent to the police. A revised version was later sent to the police that included the names of only two lieutenant colonels out of the original eight linked to Choi’s death.

Park said he was told by the Marine Corps’ top commander that Yoon was “furious” when he learned of the colonel’s findings and called Lee to express his anger. (The commander denies making such comments.) Park said the president’s reaction led to pressure from the Defense Ministry to remove the names of top officers like Lim as criminal suspects from his report.

Yoon has not directly addressed the allegations, and his office has declined to comment until police and the government agency, the High-Level Corruption Investigation Office, have completed their investigations. Lee has denied that he was pressured by Yoon’s office, and analysts have struggled to explain why Yoon acted in the way he did.

But Park stands by his story. The Defense Ministry is moving to court-martial him for insubordination. Authorities say he ignored orders to delay handing over the investigation documents to police. The colonel says the documents had already been sent to police when he received the orders. He says he is being persecuted for resisting pressure to remove the names of senior officers from the report.

At Park’s court martial this month, Yoo Jae-eun, an aide to the defense minister, was called to testify. She said that when she called Park at Lee’s instructions, she suggested that he not name any suspected criminals in the report or list any suspected criminal acts at all. She argued that the suggestion was not an act of undue pressure, but was intended as “one of the options” for Park to consider.

Another Marine who was discharged after being swept away by floodwaters has sued Lim for negligence in his duties, alleging that his unit was ordered to go into dangerous waters to please the general, who he claims was let to direct his unit’s disaster relief efforts by his obsession with publicity. Lim has called the lawsuit “defamatory.”

Yoon expressed condolences for Choi’s death and criticized the Marines’ work during the flood disaster but has remained silent on the allegations of illegal pressure. But South Koreans often find Yoon’s decisions “incomprehensible,” Lee Jin-young, an editorial writer for the conservative daily Dong-A Ilbo, wrote in a column. When Yoon made his “impulsive” decisions, his staff lacked the courage to endure his “anger” and speak out, she said.

“Instead, when the president attacks the wrong target, they focus on the periphery,” Lee wrote. “When this happens repeatedly, scandals erupt and approval ratings plummet.”

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