On July 24, a civil lawsuit was filed in the Seoul Central District Court against Yoon Suk-yeol, the incumbent South Korean President. Byun Hee-jae, a South Korean journalist and founder of MediaWatch, is the plaintiff. He claims to have suffered "indirect damages" from what he says was a fabricated investigation conducted under Yoon's watch during his time as a prosecutor.
Yoon was appointed Chief Investigator of the Special Prosecutor's Office in December 2016 to probe political scandals associated with then-President Park Geun-hye. The allegations have to do with investigations during that time.
Byun contends that Yoon oversaw an investigation that included evidence tampering leading to President Park's impeachment. Park was impeached by the South Korean National Assembly on December 9, 2016. She was subsequently removed from office on March 10, 2017, after the Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the impeachment. Therefore, Byun claims Park Geun-hye suffered "direct damages" from the prosecution's fabricated investigation.
In South Korea, a sitting president is immune from criminal prosecution but not from civil complaints. There are few examples to point to, however. And lawsuits concerning actions committed before one assumes the presidency are unprecedented in the country.
Byun sat down with JAPAN Forward at the beginning of September to share his story leading up to the lawsuit. This publication makes no judgment about the merits of his arguments but believes the journalist has a right to tell his story.
Excerpts of the interview follow.
You claim that reporting on a tablet PC by Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Company (JTBC) in 2016 triggered the impeachment movement against Park Geun-hye. Can you elaborate?
On October 24, 2016, JTBC, one of South Korea's major television networks, began airing stories on Choi Soon-sil, a businesswoman, and her connection to then-President Park Geun-hye. The network reported that Choi was acting behind the curtains, meddling in matters concerning South Korea's diplomacy and security. Meanwhile, the reports said, she was exerting influence on the Park administration's recruitment.
JTBC presented a piece of tablet PC as evidence. They contend it was utilized by Choi to sway government policies and edit Park's speeches. The portable device did in fact contain various classified documents relating to the presidency which, for obvious reasons, should not have been in the hands of a civilian.
JTBC's exclusive report, therefore, sent shock waves across the Peninsula. It claimed one of their reporters serendipitously found the device in an office owned by Choi's acquaintance. Before airing their story, JTBC said it decided to submit the device to the prosecutors' office. The prosecutors ended up confirming the authenticity of the tablet PC's acquisition and Choi's ownership after JTBC ran its news segment.
As a result, then-President Park Geun-hye became a suspect overnight. She was blamed for divulging official secrets. But more crucially, she was accused of voluntarily relinquishing her power to a non-appointed civilian. This sparked a serious controversy over her qualifications as a political leader.
Park was impeached just five months after JTBC's scoop. This scandal became widely dubbed "Choi Soon-sil Gate."
Are you suggesting there was something wrong with the JTBC report and subsequent investigation by the prosecutor?
Yes. The tablet PC in question actually belonged to Kim Hansoo, who was formerly an employee of the Blue House, not Choi Soon-sil. Thus, it made sense that the device contained classified documents and materials pertaining to the presidency. JTBC, by falsely reporting Choi's ownership of the device, manufactured a cause for Park's impeachment.
My company, Media Watch, published articles calling out inconsistencies in JTBC's reporting from late 2016 to early 2017. We discovered from our independent analysis that JTBC had made 24 separate errors in their exclusive coverage of Choi Soon-sil and the tablet PC.
How they came into possession of the tablet PC and their claim of Choi's ownership logically didn't make sense. What's genuinely problematic, though, was the subsequent investigation. The prosecution, instead of correcting JTBC's faulty reporting, publicly officialized their stories.
Although I knew that JTBC's stories were unsound at the time, I was cautious about probing the prosecution's potential misconduct. Especially given that such a fabricated investigation was inconceivable. However, in the fall of 2017, the South Korean National Forensic Service released an astounding evaluation of the tablet PC. It reinforced my suspicion. That's when I knew for sure that the prosecution must have been involved in this matter.
In 2018, you were arrested on charges of defaming JTBC and its employees. You served 1 year of your 2-year jail sentence. What happened?
In May 2018, I became the first journalist among major OECD countries to be arrested ahead of trial. I'm sure it's rather unusual in Japan and the United States for journalists working for the public good to get apprehended for libel. Regardless, I was found guilty in the trial court. And I served 1 year in prison before being released on bail. My appeal has been ongoing for the last 4 years.
Ironically, this whole thing was a blessing in disguise. During my trial, I obtained more evidence of the prosecution playing a leading role in the tablet PC story fabrication. Upon scrutinizing the forensics report by the National Forensic Service, I discovered that the prosecution had tampered with the tablet PC, which should have been sealed to preserve the integrity of the evidence.
Other evidence also revealed that the contracts issued by a mobile carrier that activated the tablet PC were doctored. It was these forged documents that made Choi Soon-sil appear as the legal owner of the tablet PC. (Activation is required to operate the device).
I also uncovered that SK Telecom, the largest mobile carrier in South Korea, was involved in this grand scheme. They also seem to have wanted to frame President Park Geun-hye as an incompetent leader.
Park Geun-hye was undeniably the true victim of the prosecution's misconduct. But I also suffered indirect damages due to my fact-finding activities. Notably, the forged SK Telecom contracts were submitted by the prosecution as evidence in my defamation trial. This piece of evidence was crucial in finding me guilty of defamation charges.
So how does Yoon Suk-yeol, the current president of South Korea, play into this whole scheme?
It is unclear to what extent Yoon Suk-yeol commanded the fabricated investigation of the tablet PC. And his involvement in Choi Soon-sil Gate is also not clear. Yet I have reasonable grounds to believe that Yoon was deeply involved. I also believe that Han Dong-hoon, the current Minister of Justice and then second-in-command in the investigation team, partook in the misconduct.
Near the end of 2016 and early 2017, public opinion began rising within South Korea contesting JTBC's erroneous claims on the tablet PC. But this is when Yoon Suk-yeol joined the Special Prosecutor's Office as the Chief Investigator and introduced a second tablet PC. Yoon and his crew used this second tablet PC to scotch any doubts about the first tablet PC and JTBC's news reports. The prosecutors claimed that Chang Si-ho, Choi Soon-Sil's niece, "voluntarily" submitted the second tablet PC to them.
However, I discovered that the second tablet device was also manipulated by the prosecutors.
Why did you think the second tablet was altered?
Last year, MediaWatch obtained internal data on this second device from the court. We then sought the Korea Cyber Forensic Professional Association's (KCFPA) expert evaluation.
The result revealed that the official report by the Special Prosecutor's investigation team contained false information. For one, the report on how this second device was activated, the length of its usage, and how it was acquired by prosecutors and submitted to the court, were all untrue.
This report was also submitted as evidence in my trial. Again, this evidence became one basis for my arrest and conviction. Since the report was issued by Yoon Suk-yeol and his team, I believe I have the right to seek damages directly from Yoon.
You recently filed a civil lawsuit against Yoon Suk-yeol. But the South Korean media has largely remained quiet. What do you think is the reason?
Had my lawsuit been based on a completely frivolous story, the media and tabloids might have had a field day. Instead, my lawsuit was grounded in hard evidence. And perhaps that's why they have turned a blind eye.
In a nutshell, I'm arguing that near the end of 2016, some members of the South Korean prosecution conspired with the nation's top media outlet and largest mobile carrier company to falsely accuse and overthrow then-president Park Geun-hye and replace her. It sounds like a scene from a blockbuster thriller, but that's the reality.
I think the Korean media is unwilling to report on this. If they did, it might destabilize the Korean establishment and generate social disorder. Regardless, it is what it is. And the media has a responsibility to present inconvenient truths.
You have leveled some serious accusations against a sitting conservative president. Do you have any support from the right-wing?
As recently as 2021, many conservatives in South Korea who voted for Park Geun-hye supported me and my work. Back then many of these people chanted slogans without hesitation like, "Death penalty for Yoon Suk-yeol who led a fabricated investigation." However, after the 2022 presidential election, most of Park Geun-hye's supporters turned to support Yoon.
This could be a difficult phenomenon for many Japanese or Americans to grasp. [Former President] Moon Jae In appointed Yoon Suk-yeol as Prosecutor General for successfully jailing Park Geun-hye and 200 other conservatives while he was the Chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office. But then Yoon began conflicting with the Moon administration in 2019. That was after he decided to prosecute Cho Kuk, who was a justice minister in Moon's cabinet and a close confidant of Moon, on corruption charges.
In 2021, after being nominated as a presidential candidate by a leading conservative party, Yoon suddenly began cherishing conservative values. Once elected, he endorsed policies to rekindle ties with Tokyo and Washington.
He is taking many steps to undo his liberal predecessor's work, which seems to arouse the conservative crowd. Therefore, I don't have much backing from the conservatives.
Do you have any support now?
Since Yoon assumed office, liberals and progressives started lending an ear to my plea. More recently, Song Young-gil, who led the Democratic Party under Moon Jae In, publicly endorsed my claims. That made headlines in the mainstream media. In one news show, Song said he read all three of my books detailing my probe into the prosecution and JTBC's misconduct.
With the former ruling party leader supporting me, I cautiously assume that many progressives and liberals are also behind me. My books, which Song mentioned, have sold thousands of copies and some have become best sellers. I currently hold rallies across the country almost every week with my supporters.
It is true that active opposition lawmakers (Democratic Party of Korea) do not agree with me. Many of them had encouraged the punishment of former President Park. And for that reason, they have remained relatively silent on Yoon's prosecutorial misconduct.
But this is a nonpartisan issue that threatens our liberal democracy and system of governance. Song Young-gil sees this. He says that if the opposition party doesn't break their silence soon, they will be duped in the same way conservatives were by Yoon in 2017 and 2018. I completely agree with him.
Any reaction from former President Park Geun-hye?
Former President Park Geun-hye has reserved comment on this issue. She was pardoned during the Moon Jae In era in late 2021. The reasons for her silence, I believe, are similar to those of the media. She wishes not to pull the trigger that could bring down the entire establishment and cause major public chaos.
Here again, her motive is beyond my knowledge. I'd love to ask her a similar question if I can summon her to the witness stand in my trial.
Has President Yoon Seok-yul or his lawyers responded to your lawsuit?
Yoon Suk-yeol was officially served with the complaint on August 14. In civil litigation, you must respond before the adjudication or you automatically lose the case. So, I'm convinced Yoon's side will reply one way or the other, albeit not fervently. But a sloppy response could create a bigger problem for Yoon.
Yoon Suk-yeol is not the only person I sued. I also sued Han Dong-hoon, the current Minister of Justice and former right-hand man of Yoon. In addition, I sued three other prosecutors and investigators who were directly involved in the investigation of the second tablet PC. Given that the entire investigation team has been served, if Yoon or Han denies any wrongdoing, working-level prosecutors and investigators will be held accountable and take the entire blame.
How do you expect this issue to play out in the near future?
First, I believe I have demonstrated that evidence-tampering and fraudulent investigation by Yoon and his team did take place. This incident, I believe, is powerful enough to shake the core of our nation. It is difficult to fathom that some unknown force will be able to suppress the truth forever.
There are three more journalists at MediaWatch, including Hwang Uiwon who were convicted at the first trial alongside me. Hwang is the current CEO and editor-in-chief of MediaWatch. He was sentenced to one year imprisonment and was released on bail after serving 6 months. In principle, we incurred damages from the prosecution's fabricated investigation. Therefore, we have the legal right to file a lawsuit against anyone who participated in it.
All critical details have been documented. I'm simply waiting for the courts to officialize my findings by ruling that Yoon and his team manipulated the two tablet PCs and conducted fabricated investigations on Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil.
This issue is already widely known in the legal sphere. Of course, if all the judges decide to overlook the truth as well, there's nothing much left to be done. That's simply my own country's faith.
JAPAN Forward is open to interviewing defendants in this story.
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(Read the article in Japanese.)
Author: JAPAN Forward