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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Oct. 14)

All News 07:23 October 14, 2020

Time to shed light on corruption scandal

More than 20 politicians, officials and financiers face mounting allegations that they were deeply involved in the fraud schemes of two asset management companies. They include up to eight members of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and five former and incumbent presidential officials.

The allegations are on the cusp of turning into the largest corruption scandal since President Moon Jae-in took power in 2017 following the ouster of Park Geun-hye, who was jailed for corruption and influence peddling following her impeachment. The episode is closely related to the financial fraud cases involving Lime Asset Management and Optimus Asset Management, which caused investors a loss of 1.6 trillion won ($1.3 billion) and 500 billion won, respectively.

The case emerged last Thursday when Kim Bong-hyun, former chairman of Star Mobility and the main financial source for Lime, testified at his trial that he handed a shopping bag filled with 50 million won in cash to his company CEO Lee Kang-se. Kim claimed that Lee gave the money to Kang Ki-jung, then senior presidential secretary for political affairs, in July last year.

Kang immediately denied receiving the money, denouncing Kim for making a false claim. Kang filed a suit against the businessman for alleged perjury and libel. But his legal action has failed to hush the bribery allegations. Rather it is amplifying suspicions that he and other politicians, including DPK Chairman Lee Nak-yon, Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung and DPK Rep. Ki Dong-min, were implicated in the scandal.

What really matters is that the prosecution allegedly tried to cover up the bribery scandal. The Seoul Southern District Prosecutors' Office reportedly knew about Kang's alleged bribe acceptance four months ago. But the office has not probed such allegations. This is raising suspicions that law enforcement officers might have tried to protect officials and politicians from possible criminal charges.

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae is also under criticism for abolishing a joint investigation unit specializing in stock investment fraud. The unit was affiliated with the district prosecutors' office. Some critics pointed out that Choo shut down the unit to help politicians and officials avoid an investigation.

Choo has also been blamed for weakening the power of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, an anti-corruption crusader, to cover up corruption, influence peddling and election rigging involving President Moon's inner circle. In the name of prosecutorial reform, Choo has replaced senior prosecutors, who support Yoon's anti-graft drive, with those who curry favor with the powers that be. Against this backdrop, prosecutors have increasingly become reluctant to dig up the dirt on corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

There is another allegation that a female official at the presidential civil affairs office owned a 9.8 percent share in Optimus Asset Management under a borrowed name. But no prosecutors have investigated her even though they obtained the information about her shareholding in June. This also indicated that law enforcement overlooked her illegalities. Suspicions about her have continued to grow, not least because her husband is a director of Optimus, which had lobbied politicians, bureaucrats and regulators to hide its investment fraud.

Now the Supreme Prosecutors' Office should create a special investigation team to get to the bottom of the corruption scandal. President Moon needs to consider appointing a special prosecutor to ensure a fair and thorough probe.

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