Three opposition parties push to impeach Hwang
By Kim Rahn
Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn refused Monday to extend the mandate of the independent counsel's investigation into the corruption scandal involving impeached President Park Geun-hye.
Three opposition parties will now push for an impeachment vote against Hwang.
Hwang's rejection came 11 days after the team asked the acting president to exercise his authority to extend the 70-day mandate by a month, saying the team needed more time to complete the investigation. However, the team's probe will expire today as scheduled.
"The counsel team has already indicted many figures involved in the scandal or has collected enough evidence to indict some who remain, so it has achieved its goal," the prime minister said in a statement.
He said the prosecution would take over pending cases as stated in the special law on the investigation.
"If the prosecution's future investigation is unsatisfactory and requires an independent probe system, the political sector may be able to seek a second independent counsel," Hwang said.
The acting president noted that pro- and anti-impeachment rallies have been held in downtown Seoul every weekend for four months. He said the investigation, if extended, might influence the presidential election, which may be held in the first half of the year.
"I concluded that for the state's stability, it is proper not to extend the counsel's mandate but to let the prosecution take over the investigation," he said.
Hwang had widely been expected to refuse to extend the probe out of loyalty to the President who appointed him.
If the mandate was extended to the end of March and the Constitutional Court made a ruling to oust her in early March, Park would be stripped of her presidential privileges, including immunity from prosecution while in office, and could be summoned for questioning as an ordinary citizen and be arrested if any allegations were confirmed.
Hwang is also a strong potential presidential contender from the conservative bloc, which has claimed the counsel's investigation has been unfair and unfavorable to Park. His refusal to extend the mandate could be a tactic to appeal to conservative voters.
Expecting the refusal, opposition parties earlier sought to revise the law to bypass Hwang's decision, but failed because of opposition from the ruling Liberty Korea Party (LKP).
Counsel team spokesman Lee Kyu-chul said it was regrettable that the mandate would not be extended.
"We've tried our best to fulfill our duty stated by the law," Lee said at a media briefing. "It is regrettable that Hwang did not accept our request because we have not finished our investigation."
The opposition parties strongly condemned Hwang's refusal. The Democratic Party of Korea, the People's Party and the Justice Party now plan to try to have the acting president impeached.
Impeaching a prime minister requires a motion submitted by more than one third of parliamentary members — 100 out of the current 299 — and the approval of more than half — 151. The combined number of the three opposition parties' members forms the quorum.
The three parties also plan to hold a provisional session of the National Assembly in March to pass a new law aimed at allowing members of the current independent counsel team to continue its probe after being reformed.
DPK spokesman Youn Kwan-suk said Hwang's refusal was a "historic atrocity that puts a damper on the people's desire and expectations."
Youn said some key issues remain unresolved, including face-to-face questioning of Park, investigations into conglomerates other than Samsung, and a probe into former presidential secretary Woo Byung-woo.
"Hwang's decision is indulging these people," he said.
The People's Party spokesman Kim Kyung-jin said, "Nearly 80 percent of the people wanted the probe extended, but Hwang thinks of himself as Park's bodyguard."
But the LKP said it respected Hwang's decision, and that the opposition parties must accept the result and should not cause more political strife.
"Whether to extend the mandate is totally up to the acting president," party floor leader Chung Woo-taik said. "He made the conclusion for state stability, and we respect that."