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Yoon again vetoes special probe bill over Marine's death

July 9, 2024 - 14:30 By Son Ji-hyoung
President Yoon Suk Yeol (second from left, front) and first lady Kim Keon Hee (left, front) lay a wreath of flowers Monday at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where some 10,000 bodies of soldiers who took part in the 1950-53 Korean War and their bereaved families are laid to rest. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday again vetoed the Democratic Party of Korea-led bill to launch a special counsel to investigate allegations that the Yoon administration, including the president himself, exerted external pressure on an internal military probe into the death of young Marine Cpl. Chae Su-geun in July 2023.

Yoon's veto is his 15th since his inauguration in May 2022, as he has exercised his constitutional power to block the passage of bills pushed by the opposition parties who hold the majority in the parliament throughout his term. The decision was made while he is on a trip to the United States. Yoon arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, before attending the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit in Washington later this week.

Announcing Yoon's veto, the presidential office said in a statement, "The tragic death of a Marine who answered the nation's call and served in a (military) operation should no longer lead to a politically motivated abuse."

The decision followed nearly a year of investigation internally by the military and then by the Gyeongbuk Provincial Police Agency and came a day after the police cleared Lim Seong-geun, the then-commander of the 1st Division of the Marine Corps, of charges of abuse of power and negligent homicide in the death of Cpl. Chae in July 2023.

The 20-year-old conscript was swept away during a search and rescue operation in a stream swollen with floodwater due to torrential rains in Yecheon-gun, North Gyeongsang Province, and later found dead. Lim was the highest-ranking officer involved in the case.

Now that the police found that Lim was not involved in Chae's death, the special counsel bill pushed by the opposition parties should be withdrawn, according to the presidential office.

However, Rep. Park Ju-min of the Democratic Party, who led the special probe bill proposal, said in a statement after Yoon's veto that "a regime that fearlessly rejects its own people will inevitably fail."

Before Yoon's veto, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Tuesday recommended Yoon veto the bill at a Cabinet meeting held in Seoul, as the Cabinet handed the bill over to him.

Han said at the meeting the special counsel bill "would undermine the foundation of the criminal law system," as the current bill has a provision allowing for the elder of two special counsel candidates recommended by the main opposition party and a second opposition party, respectively, to be considered appointed if Yoon does not pick one of the two by a deadline. That special counsel would also have the power to cancel public prosecution of any other cases investigated by other authorities.

These issues would be in addition to the existing problems of the bill, proposed by the 21st National Assembly and vetoed by Yoon in May, Han argued. The ruling bloc has claimed that, given a probe into the case by the independent Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials is ongoing and the police are forwarding six other Marine personnel to the prosecution for indictment, a special counsel investigation would unfairly overlap with the CIO's probe.

Lim Seong-geun, former commander of the 1st Division of the Marine Corps (right) and former top Marine Corps investigator Park Jung-hun attend a parliamentary hearing on June 21. (Yonhap)

Yoon's political opponents, including the main opposition Democratic Party, which holds 175 out of 300 seats on the 22nd National Assembly, have accused Yoon of interfering in the Marine Corps' internal probe that found Lim liable for the deadly incident through ordering then-Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup to hold it off for more legal deliberations.

Yoon's alleged interference led to the government's decision not to hold Lim accountable, but then-Marine Corps investigator Park Jung-hun in August 2023 went ahead and referred the case to the police with allegations of criminal activity against Lim included in the report. Park was later accused of insubordination by the Defense Ministry and relieved of his post.

The CIO has been investigating officials involved in the alleged government interference, including former Defense Minister and disgraced ex-Ambassador to Australia Lee.

Political bickering intensified as the Democratic Party-led parliament's passage of the bill Thursday delayed the 22nd National Assembly's opening ceremony scheduled on Friday.

An official of the presidential office, who declined to be named, said the newly proposed special counsel bill has grown to have "stronger unconstitutionality," compared with a similar bill in May, as it infringes on the president's right to approve of a special counsel and allows only opposition parties to recommend candidates.

"It won't take too long for (Yoon) to veto the special counsel bill," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The bill's fate lies in a revote of the National Assembly.

As a result of the April 10 general election, the Democratic Party and six minor opposition parties won a combined 191 seats -- not enough on their own to override the veto that requires two-thirds of the parliamentary votes, or 200.