Death of South Korean Marine Becomes Impeachment Threat Against President

South Korean marines were sent after monsoon rains flooded a rural section of the country’s heartland last July. They were searching for missing residents in waist-deep floodwaters, but they were not wearing life jackets. They also did not have buoys or safety tubes.

When the ground gave way, five of them were swept away by the churning brown water and one, Lance Cpl. Chae Su-geun disappeared down the river, screaming for help, and was later found dead.

Nearly a year later, the death of the 20-year-old Marine has become an impeachment threat for South Korea’s leader, President Yoon Suk Yeol. And he has raised the prospect of political instability in the nation, a key U.S. ally in creating a bulwark against North Korea and China.

South Korea’s military is no stranger to tragic accidents, but this latest episode has become the first major political crisis for Yoon since his party’s crushing defeat in last month’s parliamentary elections. The career military officer who investigated Corporal Chae’s death accused the Defense Ministry of covering up the investigation and absolving senior military commanders of responsibility, all under pressure from Mr. Yoon.

Yoon has not directly addressed the allegation, and last week the president vetoed an opposition-sponsored bill in Parliament that called for a special prosecutor to investigate the allegation. The president wants government agencies such as police and prosecutors to finish investigating the various allegations before discussing further measures.

But there is broad public support for appointing a special prosecutor, polls show, as many South Koreans increasingly distrust Yoon and government prosecutors. Yoon’s opponents say that while prosecutors have launched criminal investigations into his critics and journalists accused of spreading “fake news,” they have not investigated corruption allegations against his wife, Kim Keon Hee, with the same enthusiasm. (This and a series of other scandals contributed to Mr. Yoon’s poor performance in last month’s election.)

The opposition has threatened to initiate impeachment proceedings against Yoon if he continues to resist their demand.

“The Yoon regime should not forget the lessons of history,” said Lee Jae-myung, leader of the liberal opposition, referring to former presidents who have been jailed or accused of corruption and abuse of power.

The opposition has a larger majority in the newly elected Parliament that opened on Thursday. He plans to pass another special counsel bill, but it remains to be seen whether he has the votes to override a presidential veto or enough public support and incriminating evidence against Yoon to launch impeachment proceedings against him.

Days after Corporal Chae’s death, an investigation launched by the South Korean Marine Corps concluded that he and his fellow Marines had not been provided with life jackets or safety tubes. The knee-high rubber boots they were given prevented them from moving in the water. The military has admitted security failures.

The investigation also concluded that eight supervisors, including Maj. Gen. Im Seong-geun, commander of the 1st Marine Division, were responsible for Corporal Chae’s death through negligence. Then-Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup approved the findings to be sent, as required by law, to the national police for further investigation. He gave the green light to investigators’ plan to inform the media.

“But in less than 24 hours, all the decisions were reversed and everything turned into a disaster,” said Colonel Park Jung-hun, the lead investigator.

Mr. Lee ordered Colonel Park to cancel the press conference that had been planned for the next day. The Ministry of Defense retracted the files that Colonel Park had sent to the police. He later sent police a revised version that named only two of the original eight, both lieutenant colonels, in connection with Corporal Chae’s death.

Colonel Park has said that the top Marine Corps commander told him that when Mr. Yoon learned of the colonel’s findings, he “became enraged” and called Mr. Lee to express his anger. (The commander denied making such a statement.) Colonel Park said the president’s reaction was followed by pressure from the Defense Ministry to delete from its report the names of senior officers such as Maj. Gen. Im as suspected of crimes.

Mr. Yoon has not directly addressed the allegation and his office has declined to comment, pending investigations by the police and the Corruption Investigation Bureau for High-ranking Officials, a government agency. Mr. Lee has denied being pressured by Mr. Yoon’s office. And analysts have struggled to explain why Yoon might have taken such a step.

But Colonel Park has maintained his accusation. The Ministry of Defense has court-martialed him on charges of insubordination. Authorities say he ignored an order to delay turning over investigative files to police. The colonel says the files were already on their way to the police when he received the order. He has said that he is being persecuted for resisting pressure to remove the names of senior officials from his report.

During Colonel Park’s military trial this month, Yoo Jae-eun, an aide to the defense minister, was called to testify. He said that when he called the colonel on Mr. Lee’s instructions, he suggested that he not name any criminal suspects or cite any suspected crimes in his report. He insisted that the suggestion was not intended as undue pressure but “one of the options” the colonel needed to consider.

Another Marine who was swept away and has since been discharged has sued Maj. Gen. Im for professional negligence. He claims his unit was ordered into dangerous waters to please the general, whose obsession with publicity, he claims, guided his units’ disaster relief efforts. Maj. Gen. Im called the lawsuit “defamatory.”

Mr. Yoon has expressed his condolences for the death of Corporal Chae and criticized the Marines’ operation in the flood waters, but has remained silent on the accusation of illegal pressure. But South Koreans have often found Yoon’s decisions “mysterious,” Lee Jin-young, an editorial writer for the conservative daily Dong-A Ilbo, said in his column. When Yoon made “impulsive” decisions, his staff lacked the courage to resist his “anger” and speak out, he said.

“Instead, when the president hits the wrong target, he gets hit,” Ms. Lee wrote. “As this is repeated, scandals break out and his approval ratings drop.”

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