|Civic activists and members of the Supreme Court's union call for the arrest of former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae as he walks past them through the gates of the top court in Seocho-gu, Seoul, Friday. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Judiciary power abuse probe finally reaches chief justice
By Lee Suh-yoon
For the first time in the nation's history, a former Supreme Court chief justice was summoned for questioning by prosecutors Friday, bringing the seven-month-long investigation into the massive judiciary power abuse scandal into its final stretch.
Yang Sung-tae, 70, faces 40 different charges of abuse of power during his time as chief justice from 2011 to 2017. The most serious allegation is his interference in a series of high-profile trials in order to gain political favors from the Park Geun-hye administration as he wanted to establish a de facto "Second Supreme Court."
Unlike other high-profile criminal suspects, Yang refused to stop for questions or photos as he presented himself at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office at 9:30 a.m., in a show of defiance toward the investigation.
|Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae holds a press conference in front of the Supreme Court, Friday. Banners behind him call for Yang to stand before the public in front of the prosecutors' office as other criminal suspects do. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
He did, however, hold a brief press conference on his own proclaimed stage — the main gates of the Supreme Court, a traditional arena for the wronged to voice their anger at dubious court verdicts, including those Yang allegedly influenced.
Civic activists and the court's union called Yang's move "scandalous," saying he was trying to deny the investigation's legitimacy and pressure other members of the judiciary to support him.
Yang, on the other hand, claimed he merely wanted to "visit" the court before questioning because he had spent his whole life working there, and pledged to take full responsibility for the situation.
"I'm sincerely sorry for causing public concern with the recent situation," Yang said in front of the top court before heading to the prosecutors' office, his voice barely audible above the angry din of activists and union members behind him, chanting "Arrest Yang Sung-tae" and "Go stand in front of the prosecutors' office."
|Yang Sung-tae stands on a marked spot in front of the Supreme Court, where he chose to give a press conference, instead of at the prosecutors' office. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
He also denied all allegations made against himself and the other judges under investigation.
"I would like to ask the public to trust our judges," he said "I believe that our judges did not do anything against their conscience while carrying out their duties. If they are found guilty later on, I will take full responsibility."
Yang once again denied having interfered in court rulings or discriminating against those on a "blacklist" of judges with differing political views, when asked by reporters.
A smaller crowd of conservatives carrying the national flag, the Taegeukgi, cheered on Yang from one side, calling the protesters "reds" and "commies."
|Yang silently walks past reporters and cameramen at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office, Seocho-gu, Seoul, to present himself for questioning. Yonhap|
The prosecution's probe into the scandal started in June last year, after a series of internal documents from the National Court Administration (NCA) were made public. These detailed plans to take into account Cheong Wa Dae's political interest in high-profile rulings, most notably forced wartime laborers' damage suits against Japanese firms.
Prosecutors believe Yang and other senior NCA officials intentionally delayed the verdict on forced laborers' cases for years to toe the line with the Park administration's soft diplomatic stance with Japan at the time.
Other cases subject to suspected NCA meddling include one that outlawed a progressive teachers' union and another delaying the Election Law violation trial of former spy agency chief Won Sei-hoon, which might have undermined the legitimacy of Park's 2012 presidential election victory.
|A protestor holds up a sign that reads "Out with judiciary corruption and power abuse," in front of the Supreme Court. On the left, protesters rally against Yang Sung-tae, while on the right, conservative groups supportive of Yang hold up the Taegeukgi and the U.S. flag. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
Yang's right hand man, former NCA deputy head Lim Jong-hun, was arrested last November on charges of handling the actual process of influencing court verdicts to Cheong Wa Dae's advantage. He allegedly delivered the NCA's "opinions" to judges in these trials through written statements or phone calls — allegedly upon Yang's orders. Other senior NCA officials who worked under Yang have also been questioned by the prosecution.
Prosecutors asked him how deeply and directly he was involved in the allegations, such as to what extent he gave orders or was briefed about the trial procedures. They have secured evidence that Yang met lawyers of Kim & Chang, the law firm representing Japanese companies in the suits on forced labor, multiple times, and that he signed the alleged blacklist of liberal judges.