Aides to former South Korea president Park indicted for doctoring time log of Sewol sinking report

People and relatives of victims of the Sewol ferry watch the salvage operation off the coast of South Korea's southern island of Jindo on March 28, 2017.
People and relatives of victims of the Sewol ferry watch the salvage operation off the coast of South Korea's southern island of Jindo on March 28, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - Prosecutors on Wednesday (March 28) indicted four aides to former President Park Geun Hye for doctoring the time log of reports to the president on one of the country's worst maritime disasters that killed more than 300 people.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office said it charged Kim Ki Choon, Park's former chief of staff, for document falsification and abuse of power.

It also indicted Kim Jang Soo and Kim Kwan Jin, two former heads of the National Security Office, on the charge of damaging public documents, and Yoon Jeon Choo, a presidential secretary, for perjury, the office said.

Prosecutors have been investigating allegations that Park's office deliberately altered the time she had first been briefed on the accident, to 10 am from 9.30 am, reported Yonhap news agency.

The 6,800-ton ferry was carrying 476 passengers en route to the resort island of Jeju when it capsized in waters off the southern coast on April 16, 2014, killing 304 people, mostly high school students on a school trip.

Apart from a wide-ranging corruption scandal which exposed shady links between big business and politics, the Park government's alleged mishandling of the 2014 accident was another factor that sparked mass street protests calling for her impeachment in late 2016.

The prosecution said Park received the first report on the Sewol sinking around 10.20 am, already one hour after Kim Jang Soo was first notified of the accident by the Coast Guard.

The ship had already begun to sink before 9 am and was completely under water at 10.30 am, according to the Coast Guard's log obtained by the prosecution.

Kim tried to reach Park over the phone as soon as he learned of the accident, but she did not answer his calls and it took more time to reach her because he had to get the message to Park through her aides, according to Yonhap.

Prosecutors discovered that Park remained in her official residence at the time, away from the main office, and her aide had to call his chauffeur to drive him to the residence in Cheong Wa Dae to personally deliver the first report to her.

Park gave her first official instruction about the rescue at 10.22 am.

Kim Ki Choon is suspected of having ordered officials to write up false documents to make it look as though Park was briefed on the sinking in time and was kept posted on real-time developments by receiving 11 more reports throughout the day, according to Yonhap.

But the probe found that Park was only updated on the accident, on paper, twice, again through her aide.

Kim Jang Soo and Kim Kwan Jin are accused of altering parts of the national crisis management guidelines without due legal process to strip Park and her government of responsibility as the chief executive.

They ordered officials to delete the part where it stated "The National Security Office is the control tower of a national catastrophe."

The prosecution probe also revealed that Choi Soon Sil, Park's longtime friend and confidante, who was implicated in the corruption scandal that led to her ouster, visited the residence on that day and stayed with Park and her aides in the afternoon.

Park was formally ousted from office in March last year and has now been in custody for almost a year.

She is on trial on multiple charges including abuse of power, coercion and bribery.

Prosecutors demanded a 30-year-jail sentence for her last month. A verdict is due on April 6.