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(3rd LD) New allegations emerge from corruption hearing

All Headlines 19:14 December 15, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS new info in paras 14-17, 23-25)
By Kang Yoon-seung

SEOUL, Dec. 15 (Yonhap) -- New allegations surrounding an influence-peddling scandal involving South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her confidante emerged during a parliamentary hearing on Thursday, ranging from a cover-up attempt to spying on a top justice and bribery involving a deputy premier-level official.

The National Assembly held the fourth round of inquiries into the case focusing on alleged wrongdoing by Park's friend Choi Soon-sil and her ex-husband Chung Yun-hoi, who was an aide to Park when the president was a lawmaker.

During the session, an opposition lawmaker unveiled a recorded conversation involving Choi, which indicated she tried to cover up her attempt to pressure SK Group to donate money to the K-Sports Foundation, a public organization controlled by herself.

Jeong Hyun-sik, a former K-Sports head, earlier claimed that the organization requested Korea's third-largest business group make an 8 billion won (US$6.7 million) donation.

"Why couldn't you stop Jeong from giving testimony?" Choi said in the phone call with an acquaintance unveiled by Rep. Park Young-sun of the opposition Democratic Party.

The acquaintance replied that despite the efforts to stop him, Jeong was stubborn. The recording also showed that Choi sought to pressure SK Group to testify that it has not received requests from her.

On Wednesday, the lawmaker also revealed a voice recording which indicated that Choi sought to have Ko Young-tae, her close associate who worked at a company she owned, deliver false testimony at parliament.

Former Ewha Womans University President Choi Kyung-hee touches her eyeglasses during the fourth hearing on the influence-peddling scandal at Seoul-based National Assembly headquarter on Dec. 15, 2016. (Yonhap)

During the parliamentary hearing, Cho Han-gyu, former president of the local daily Segye Ilbo, raised the allegations that the Park administration carried out illegal surveillance of senior judicial officials, including Supreme Court chief justice Yang Seung-tae.

In 2014, the newspaper first reported on the allegations of the president's once-powerful former aide Chung Yun-hoi meddling in state affairs based on a set of presidential documents it had secured during its news coverage. Cho cited some of the unreported documents to back his claim about the illicit surveillance.

Cho alleged that the incumbent government spied on Yang's day-to-day activities, including his mountain climbing. He also said Choi Sung-joon, currently the head of the Korea Communications Commission, was put under scrutiny in 2014 when he was serving as the chief judge of a provincial district court.

Cho called the illicit monitoring of civilians an illegitimate act that "trampled on" the constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers among the government, legislature and judiciary.

Following the revelations, the Supreme Court voiced displeasure, saying if the allegations prove true, the illegal surveillance runs counter to the constitutional principle of judicial independence.

"We cannot help but call it truly anti-constitutional," the Supreme Court said in a statement.

The Democratic Party also claimed the action violated the Constitution, and that it is another reason the president should be removed from office.

"Park turned the government back into the military dictatorship of 1970s," the main opposition party said.

Other opposition parties echoed the view, adding the action clearly violated the democratic division of legal, administrative and judicial powers.

The splinter People's Party said the alleged surveillance on judicial officials can be considered the revival of the draconian Yushin Constitution introduced by her father Park Chung-hee in 1972.

The former Segye Ilbo chief also commented on the rumors that a deputy prime ministerial official was involved in a bribery case.

He said that the official, who is still serving in the current government, was related to the allegations that Chung, Park's former aide, had received kickbacks for helping some clinch high-level government posts.

Lawmakers also grilled former Ewha Womans University President Choi Kyung-hee over allegations that the university admitted and gave academic favors to Choi's daughter Chung Yoo-ra.

The former president said the university's investigation showed no lawbreaking activities related to the admission of Choi's daughter. She admitted meeting Choi in 2015, after her admission.

An admission official from the university said he never received orders to accept Chung Yoo-ra. Concerning whether the university meddled with her grades, another official said issuing grades is the right of professors.

Meanwhile, Rep. Do Jong-hwan of the Democratic Party said in a statement the country's largest business group, Samsung, originally planned to give some 20 billion won to Chung under the name of a consulting arrangement.

In the copy of the contract between Samsung and a German company owned by Choi and her daughter signed in August 2015, the group's tech arm agreed to support horse riders through the company until 2018.

Samsung originally said it would support six athletes under the contract, but Chung was the only one who actually benefited from it.

Among the 30 summoned by the parliamentary committee, Choi's ex-husband, among others, refused to attend. The summons on Chung failed to be delivered as his whereabouts remain unknown, sources said.

Former presidential official Kim Han-soo, who is suspected to have provided a tablet PC to Choi, also did not attend the questioning. The scandal surfaced after a local broadcaster disclosed the files on the tablet PC presumed to be used by Choi, which held files containing presidential addresses. Choi neither holds an administrative position nor is privy to such classified documents as a civilian.

The parliament issued orders of accompaniment for 11 witnesses. The order is issued to forcefully make a suspect or witness appear at a hearing when he or she refuses to attend without a justifiable reason.

Rep. Park Young-sun of the Democratic Party asks questions during a parliamentary hearing at the Seoul-based National Assembly on Dec. 15, 2016. (Yonhap)


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