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Park avoids possible arrest in March

By Jun Ji-hye

Bringing scandal-ridden President Park Geun-hye to justice was virtually handed over to the next government Monday when acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn rejected the independent counsel's request to extend its investigation into the presidential corruption scandal.

Hwang said, through his chief press secretary, that if the scandal needed to be investigated further, state prosecutors could take up where the independent counsel team left off or the National Assembly could set in motion yet another special probe.

But political observers said that even if the Constitutional Court upheld Park's impeachment and removed her from office, it would be unlikely that state prosecutors could begin their investigation immediately. The experts added that this could give Park more time to prepare to avoid arrest, including destroying evidence.

"Even if the court upholds the impeachment, the prosecution will not begin its investigation for at least 60 days until the early presidential election ends out of concern that its probe could exert influence on the election," Kim Tae-hyun, a lawyer, said, during his cable TV appearance.

Hwang's decision came a day before the independent counsel team's 70-day mandate expires. The team could have been given a 30-day extension if the request had been approved.

The Constitutional Court is widely expected to announce its ruling by March 13, when acting court President Lee Jung-mi, one of the eight justices, is set to retire. If the impeachment is upheld, the Constitution requires a presidential election to be held within 60 days.

Announcing his decision, Hwang also raised concerns that if the independent counsel team continued its probe until late March, it would have an influence on a possible early election.

Park was impeached on Dec. 9 for allegedly letting her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil meddle in state affairs and colluding with her to extort money from local conglomerates.

Lawyer Kim said that if the probe team led by independent counsel Park Young-soo had been given a 30-day extension, there would have been no reason for not requesting an arrest warrant for Park.

"If the court upholds Park's impeachment, which will makes her a civilian, there is no reason for the independent counsel not to pursue her arrest warrant during the remaining period of its probe, given that her former aides, who were alleged accomplices, have already been arrested," he said. "If the case is handed over to the state prosecution, it would amount to a new beginning of the investigation, and the prosecution is highly likely to wait until the presidential election ends while going through some formalities including setting up an investigation team."

Prof. Cha Jae-won of the Catholic University of Busan noted that Hwang's decision was his only option considering his loyalty to Park.

Hwang has been one of Park's closest aides, serving as justice minister and prime minister in her administration.

"It would have been difficult for him to approve the extension of the independent counsel's probe that has targeted Park," Cha said.

He added that Hwang could have been considering a possible bid for the presidency. Had Hwang approved the extension, this could have brought severe criticism from conservative voters who are supporting him, the professor noted.

Although Hwang has never officially talked about running for president, he has been widely mentioned as a possible conservative candidate after former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped out.

By Jun Ji-hye

Bringing scandal-ridden President Park Geun-hye to justice was virtually handed over to the next government Monday when acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn rejected the independent counsel's request to extend its investigation into the presidential corruption scandal.

Hwang said, through his chief press secretary, that if the scandal needed to be investigated further, state prosecutors could take up where the independent counsel team left off or the National Assembly could set in motion yet another special probe.

But political observers said that even if the Constitutional Court upheld Park's impeachment and removed her from office, it would be unlikely that state prosecutors could begin their investigation immediately. The experts added that this could give Park more time to prepare to avoid arrest, including destroying evidence.

"Even if the court upholds the impeachment, the prosecution will not begin its investigation for at least 60 days until the early presidential election ends out of concern that its probe could exert influence on the election," Kim Tae-hyun, a lawyer, said, during his cable TV appearance.

Hwang's decision came a day before the independent counsel team's 70-day mandate expires. The team could have been given a 30-day extension if the request had been approved.

The Constitutional Court is widely expected to announce its ruling by March 13, when acting court President Lee Jung-mi, one of the eight justices, is set to retire. If the impeachment is upheld, the Constitution requires a presidential election to be held within 60 days.

Announcing his decision, Hwang also raised concerns that if the independent counsel team continued its probe until late March, it would have an influence on a possible early election.

Park was impeached on Dec. 9 for allegedly letting her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil meddle in state affairs and colluding with her to extort money from local conglomerates.

Lawyer Kim said that if the probe team led by independent counsel Park Young-soo had been given a 30-day extension, there would have been no reason for not requesting an arrest warrant for Park.

"If the court upholds Park's impeachment, which will makes her a civilian, there is no reason for the independent counsel not to pursue her arrest warrant during the remaining period of its probe, given that her former aides, who were alleged accomplices, have already been arrested," he said. "If the case is handed over to the state prosecution, it would amount to a new beginning of the investigation, and the prosecution is highly likely to wait until the presidential election ends while going through some formalities including setting up an investigation team."

Prof. Cha Jae-won of the Catholic University of Busan noted that Hwang's decision was his only option considering his loyalty to Park.

Hwang has been one of Park's closest aides, serving as justice minister and prime minister in her administration.

"It would have been difficult for him to approve the extension of the independent counsel's probe that has targeted Park," Cha said.

He added that Hwang could have been considering a possible bid for the presidency. Had Hwang approved the extension, this could have brought severe criticism from conservative voters who are supporting him, the professor noted.

Although Hwang has never officially talked about running for president, he has been widely mentioned as a possible conservative candidate after former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped out.

Jun Ji-hye jjh@koreatimes.co.kr

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