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(4th LD) Interior minister likens collective police protest to military coup

All News 19:32 July 25, 2022

(ATTN: ADDS police chief nominee's remarks in paras 17-20)
By Kim Han-joo

SEOUL, July 25 (Yonhap) -- Interior Minister Lee Sang-min on Monday slammed police officers taking collective action against the envisioned establishment of a ministry bureau overseeing the law enforcement agency, even likening them to a coterie of elite military commanders behind a 1979 coup.

The remark came two days after about 50 senior superintendents across the nation held a meeting Saturday to protest the envisioned establishment of a "police bureau," a move that they claim would compromise their political neutrality and accountability.

The meeting went ahead despite government warnings to desist, with some 140 others attending online.

"It was extremely inappropriate for them to hold a meeting away from areas where they are supposed to remain," Lee told Yonhap News Agency. "If this had happened in the military, it would be similar to the Dec. 12 coup led by Hanahoe."

The 1979 coup happened after former President Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his spy chief. Then military general Chun Doo-hwan took power through the coup together with members of Hanahoe, a now-defunct secret association in the Army of elite Korea Military Academy graduates.

"There is a specific group that is leading the senior superintendents' gathering," Lee said during an emergency press briefing later in the day. "Hanahoe got off to a start like that, and the unfortunate Dec. 12 incident happened."

Lee said the National Police Agency will "sternly investigate" those involved in the collective action.

Ryu Sam-young, a senior superintendent based in the southeastern city of Ulsan has already been put on "standby" in a preliminary disciplinary action for organizing the gathering.

The interior ministry has argued the envisioned police bureau is necessary, because police are set to take on more investigative roles from the prosecution, and it will bring structure to what was previously an opaque command system wielded by the now-abolished office of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs.

Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min speaks during a press conference at the government complex in Seoul on July 25, 2022, over a meeting of police station chiefs from across the country on July 23 to protest the government's launch of a envisioned police bureau under the interior ministry. (Yonhap)

Lee also rejected claims that it is unfair for the government to allow prosecutors to hold such gatherings and ban police officers from doing so, stressing that police are different from prosecutors, as they are an organization holding firearms.

"Though a lot of time has passed, and it is unthinkable to stage a coup, it is still a serious incident for an organization capable of arming itself to hold a meeting arbitrarily to oppose a government decision," he told the press briefing.

Earlier in the day, President Yoon Suk-yeol also said he expects the interior ministry and the National Police Agency (NPA) to take "necessary steps" to deal with the collection action.

"I believe the interior ministry and the NPA will take the necessary steps," Yoon told reporters when asked to comment on the protest, which lower-level police officers have vowed to continue by holding their own gathering later this week.

Yoon did not elaborate on what the "necessary steps" will be. But his chief of staff, Kim Dae-ki, on Sunday denounced Saturday's meeting of senior superintendents as an "inappropriate action."

Yoon Hee-keun, a nominee of the new NPA chief, also lashed out at the meeting, saying the participants of the meeting will be sternly punished in accordance with the result of the inspection.

"The NPA has consistently made advanced requests to refrain from gatherings, in consideration of public concern regarding this meeting by police chiefs," the nominee said in a written statement.

The nominee also apologized to the people "for causing concern over the controversy surrounding police," while calling on officers to immediately stop such collective actions.

He also said that it will be difficult to withdraw the disciplinary action against Ryu, as he failed to obey the dismissal order and did not communicate the order to other participants.

"(I) will stabilize the organization as soon as possible and restore public confidence by carrying out our due roles," Yoon told reporters, vowing to arrange a meeting to listen to the voices of his members.

The establishment of a police bureau is expected to be endorsed during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

President Yoon Suk-yeol arrives for work at the Yongsan Presidential Office in Seoul on July 25, 2022. (Yonhap)

The main opposition Democratic Party party accused the government of attempting to intimidate police into silence.

"They did not hold stones in their hands nor did they take to the streets, but the Yoon Suk-yeol government put the police station chief, who organized the meeting, on standby and are trying to investigate all participants," Rep. Park Hong-keun, floor leader of the DP.

"It is clearly an anti-democratic measure and retaliation warning 130,000 police to shut their mouths," he said.


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