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(LEAD) Probe team says culture minister, former Park aide linked to blacklist of cultural figures

All News 17:20 January 05, 2017

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; UPDATES throughout with new info)

SEOUL, Jan. 5 (Yonhap) -- The independent counsel team investigating a corruption scandal linked to President Park Geun-hye said Thursday that the current culture minister and a former top presidential aide were involved in the alleged blacklisting of cultural figures deemed critical of the conservative government.

During a regular press briefing, spokesman Lee Kyu-chul said Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun and Kim Ki-choon, former presidential chief of staff, were implicated in the alleged creation and management of a blacklist intended to block dissident cultural figures from any state support.

"While investigating the culture ministry's allegedly unjust personnel decisions, the team has found that such decisions were made not simply in isolated cases, but rather systematically," he told reporters.

"What is related to this is the list of those excluded from government support, and we have confirmed through testimonies from various figures and evidence that Kim and Cho were involved," he added.

Kim, who served as chief secretary to Park between 2013 and 2015, is suspected of directing the then vice culture minister in 2014 to receive resignations from six high-level ministry officials. Three, who purportedly opposed the blacklisting of cultural figures, have resigned.

Investigators plan to question Kim and Cho over the blacklist allegations soon.

Related to the questions over whether the probe team is responsible for investigating the blacklist, the team said the allegations are "certainly" under its responsibility. The team believes this as the new allegations emerged during its investigation into allegedly unjust personnel decisions, which are subject to the corruption inquiry.

Later in the day, the team grilled the country's newly appointed Vice Culture Minister Song Soo-keun over the blacklist. Song is suspected of managing the list in 2014 while leading the ministry's taskforce to encourage the production of "wholesome content." He has denied the allegations.

During the press briefing, the spokesman bridled at criticism by the president's attorneys over Independent Counsel Park Young-soo's political neutrality, dismissing it as their "unilateral" claim.

Park's legal representatives have taken issue with the counsel's political inclination during a hearing at the Constitutional Court, saying his probe results must not be used as evidence for the impeachment trial. The independent counsel was recommended by the opposition bloc, which had been at the forefront of impeaching Park. The president, however, approved his appointment since the matter was decided by parliament.

Earlier in the day, a local professor was questioned by special prosecutors over suspicions he was involved in giving undue favors to the detained daughter of the woman at the center of the political scandal that led to the presidential impeachment on Dec. 9.

Professor Namkung Gon at Ewha Womans University in Seoul appeared before the office of the special investigation team looking into the influence-peddling scandal surrounding the president and her friend Choi Soon-sil.

Namkung, who was in charge of the school's admissions, is under suspicion of using his influence to help Chung Yoo-ra get into the school. Chung, a former member of the national equestrian team, is accused of receiving other academic favors by taking advantage of her mother's ties to the president.

She was arrested in Denmark on Sunday and has been taken into detention by a local court. South Korean authorities are seeking to repatriate her. In December, special prosecutors here requested Interpol put Chung on its wanted list after she declined to respond to the investigation team's repeated summons.

On Thursday, the justice ministry sent an application for criminal extradition to the foreign ministry and the prosecution in Demark. The foreign ministry said it would quickly send the application to Danish judicial authorities and seek their cooperation.

Also on the day, investigators questioned presidential secretary Kim Jin-soo over suspicions the presidential office pressured the country's state fund to support a merger deal between Samsung Group's two units in 2015.

Namkung Gon, professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, enters the special prosecutors' office in southern Seoul to undergo questioning on Jan. 5, 2017. A number of figures at the university are accused of giving undue favors to the daughter of President Park Geun-hye's close friend Choi Soon-sil. (Yonhap)


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