(2nd LD) Division chief off the hook as 6 officers referred to prosecution over Marine’s death

Police decided Monday not to charge a Marine division commander accused of responsibility in last year’s death of a young solider during a search operation for flood victims, only referring six other officers to the prosecution for indictment.

The result of the politically sensitive investigation came a year after the then 20-year-old Marine conscript, surnamed Chae, was swept away by a torrent during a search for missing downpour victims in the southeastern county of Yecheon on July 19 last year. He was found dead half a day later.

The death sparked national outrage over initial findings that conscripts, including Chae, were mobilized for the risky search mission to comb through a swollen, torrential and muddy stream without proper safety gear, such as life jackets or ropes, resulting in Chae’s death.

On Monday, the Gyeongbuk Provincial Police Agency in Andong, near Yecheon, announced that it has decided to forward six military field commanders, including the commander of Chae’s battalion and another bat
talion chief, to the prosecution on charges of professional negligence resulting in death.

The six people did not include Lim Seong-geun, the commander of the Marine Corps 1st Division at the time of the accident, who is at the center of alleged interference in the military’s initial inquiry into Chae’s death.

Police concluded that the direct cause of the death lay in a battalion commander’s arbitrary decision to change the order for conscripts to enter the stream at waist-deep instead of the initial command to remain at boot-high levels.

Police determined that Lim was not responsible for the risky operation, as the accused battalion chief was not under his direct command, and Lim did not have operational control over the search, thus he had no obligation to assess risks from the search beforehand.

“Unclear directions for the search, combined with a lack of communication, influenced” the battalion commander’s arbitrary decision to change directions, said Kim Hyeong-ryul, the chief investigator at the regi
onal police agency.

The interference allegation surfaced after former chief Marine investigator Col. Park Jung-hun, who led the inquiry, drew up a report accusing Lim and seven other military officials of being responsible for Chae’s death. Park then submitted the report to the police for criminal procedures following confirmation from the then defense minister.

The report was, however, immediately retrieved from the police by the defense ministry, while Park was subsequently dismissed as chief Marine investigator and placed under a military investigation for alleged disobedience.

Park has claimed he was informed that the retrieval was due to President Yoon Suk Yeol’s “fury” over the inquiry result accusing military commanders.

Currently, the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) is also conducting a separate investigation into alleged interference by the presidential office and the defense ministry in the military’s primary inquiry into Chae’s death.

The presidential office sa
id it respects the result of the police investigation.

“It seems that the substantial truth uncovered by the police is quite different from the suspicions that have been raised so far,” a senior presidential official told reporters. “We hope the CIO will promptly wrap up the investigation and clarify the facts.”

Last week, the opposition-controlled National Assembly passed a bill mandating a special counsel investigation into those allegations amid fierce protests from the ruling People Power Party.

Another similar bill, championed by the main opposition Democratic Party, initially passed through the previous National Assembly but was scrapped in a revote after Yoon Suk Yeol vetoed it.

Yoon is widely expected to once again exercise his veto power against the bill as the ruling People Power Party denounced it as an “unconstitutional” bill that was railroaded by the main opposition Democratic Party.

“It wouldn’t take long (for the president) to decide on the reconsideration of the bill,” the presidential o
fficial said.

Source: Yonhap News Agency