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Democratic Party seeks to revisit ex-PM Han’s bribery case

Former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook, center, is greeted by supporters after her release from prison in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi, on Aug. 23, 2017. (Yonhap)
Former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook, center, is greeted by supporters after her release from prison in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi, on Aug. 23, 2017. (Yonhap)

Controversy surrounding the conviction of former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook, who served a two-year jail term for bribery, has been rekindled, after the ruling Democratic Party sought to revisit the case.

Kim Tae-nyeon, floor leader of the Democratic Party, on Thursday hinted that Han may have been politically targeted, referring to a 100-page diary written by a late businessman, the bribe-giver. He passed away in 2018.

“The investigation was launched just ahead of the local elections in 2010 and Han was a strong contender for the mayor of Seoul. This leads me to pay attention on whether there was political motivation in the beginning of the case,” Kim said in a radio interview.

Han, who served as prime minister under late President Roh Moo-hyun between 2006 and 2007, was released from prison in 2017 after completing her sentence for accepting illicit political funds worth 900 million won ($730,000) from Han Man-ho, the late CEO of Hanshin Kunyoung Engineering & Construction, while in office.

Kim’s remarks echo Democratic Party’s other leaders and lawmakers who in the last couple of days called for a reinvestigation into the case, raising speculation that prosecutors had forced the businessman to present a testimony that was key to conviction.

Their speculation was based on the bribe-giver’s memorandum, which was written while he was in jail and elaborated that the prosecution induced him to give false testimony although he told them that he provided political funds to a lawmaker from then ruling Grand National Party, not the former prime minister. The memorandum was revealed by a local media outlet on May 14.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae made remarks indicating support for the party’s call for a reinvestigation.

“The vast volume of memorandum left by the deceased witness shows that the investigative agency has planned thoroughly and called in the witness who was in jail multiple times to threaten and appease him,” she said while attending a plenary session of the legislation and judiciary committee at the National Assembly.

The prosecution expressed strong regret and denied the speculation. “The notes were submitted as evidence during the trial and judged to have numerous false facts,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.

Experts said the memorandum itself falls short of the requirement for retrial because it’s not fresh evidence that has recently come to light.

“But there are various circumstances that may result in a retrial, for instance revelation of a misconduct on the part of judges or prosecutors related to the case,” said Chung Tae-won, a lawyer at Ace Law Group.

Another possible scenario is that sending the case to a new investigative organization that will oversee the prosecution’s probes into high-ranking government officials. The independent body is expected to be launched in July as part of President Moon Jae-in’s prosecution reform drive to check the power of the prosecution.

“The case can be the subject of an investigation for the new investigative organization but whether it will open the case or not depends on the body,” Rep. Park Ju-min said.

Political pundit Chin Joong-kwon expressed concerns over the ruling party’s possible move to dominate judicial power after gaining control of the administrative and the legislative branch.

“There appears to be a reason for the ruling party and the justice minister making systematic moves as the former prime minster herself doesn’t even come out to complain about unfairness (of the conviction),” he said.

By Park Han-na (