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(Yonhap Interview) Justice minister says there will be no bounds for probe into NIS

2017/09/28 12:48

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SEOUL, Sept. 28 (Yonhap) -- Justice Minister Park Sang-ki said Thursday there will be no limit to the ongoing prosecution's investigation into alleged political interference by the state intelligence agency under the two previous governments.

"There cannot and must not be any limitations on how far up the investigation is to be pursued. I believe the prosecution will push ahead with the investigation as long as suspicions remain," he said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

The former scholar and civic activist officially took the helm of the ministry in July.

State prosecutors have been digging into allegations that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) illegally engaged in politics under the past two conservative administrations of ousted leader Park Geun-hye and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak.

Justice Minister Park Sang-ki speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency in the ministry headquarters in Gwacheon on Sept. 28, 2017. (Yonhap) Justice Minister Park Sang-ki speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency in the ministry headquarters in Gwacheon on Sept. 28, 2017. (Yonhap)

Former NIS officials were allegedly involved in far-reaching political maneuvering against influential politicians, artists and celebrities considered critical of the government.

The agency was also found to have carried out systemic online campaigns to sway public opinion to benefit the conservative bloc under former President Lee.

Fresh evidence has recently triggered a reinvestigation into former NIS chief Won Sei-hoon, who's already in jail for election meddling.

Attention is now focused on whether the probe will eventually target Lee, under whose presidency the illicit NIS schemes are believed to have started in earnest.

The minister denied claims by some opposition lawmakers that the probe is motivated by vengeance from the liberal Moon Jae-in administration against its conservative rival.

"That is a wrong idea. ... This is about restoring the freedom of speech, expression and art that have been violated. We cannot set the nation back on track without clearing up these matters in accordance with the law and principle."

   The minister noted that the ministry and prosecution have been working with German counterparts to chase down the illegal assets of Park's confidante Choi Soon-sil, who is at the center of the influence-peddling scandal, and her family in the European country.

"I can't tell you the details, as we're bound by a confidentiality clause in the diplomatic treaty, but I can tell you that the German prosecution has been conducting their own inquiry into Choi's assets there."

   Regarding the readjustment of prosecution and police investigative authority -- one of Moon's key reform policies -- Park refuted the idea that the prosecution's exclusive right to indictment should be shared with police.

"I don't think that's what the public wants. The prosecution needs to handle highly charged cases," he said. "The reform should be done in a way that helps restore (the police and prosecution's) respective primary roles."

   The president has proposed diminishing state prosecutor's powers by giving more authority to the police. Currently, police are required to carry out investigations under the prosecution's supervision.

The minister indicated there will be a revision in the recommended plan for a new investigative agency to deal with high-profile crimes involving senior public officials.

A Justice Ministry reform committee proposed early this week a mammoth team of 122 investigators, including 50 prosecutors, as part of the president's reforms to root out high-level corruption.

"I would say 15 (prosecutors) will be adequate. An investigative body of that size may create vague fear, although I don't agree with the concern that it will wield absolute power over everyone else," he said.

Asked about the issue of rising juvenile crime, the minister ruled out the abolishment of juvenile law, saying that it is against constitutional values.

He promised the government would shore up the probation system for convicted minors, while seeking ways to amend the rules by upping the legal age of minors subject to the law.

elly@yna.co.kr

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