Woo Byung-woo

Woo Byung-woo: One Who Must Not Be Forgotten

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Some of the most powerful figures in South Korean society were arrested as a result of Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal: Lee Jae-yong, the de facto chief of Samsung, former ministers of culture and health, former Blue House aides who yielded significant power, and of course, former president Park Geun-hye and her confidante Choi Soon-sil.

But one figure has managed to dodge the massive teams of both the prosecutors and independent prosecutor. He’s not a well-known figure among many non-Korean readers, whereas any South Korean who followed the recent political scandal probably knows his name. His story, despite the relative lack of coverage in English, is seen by many South Koreans as key to resolving one of country’s biggest political scandals in recent history.

Woo Byung-woo is his name. He’s satirically dubbed by critics as the “emperor” for his extensive grip on power. He’s also called the “eely Woo” for circumventing the investigators and their arrest warrants.

Requests for Woo’s arrest warrants have been rejected twice, first in February and more recently on Apr. 12. Last week, some lawmakers from the Minjoo Party even proposed a legislative bill to form an independent team of prosecutors just to investigate Woo.

Woo was Park Geun-hye’s former senior secretary for civil affairs from early 2015 until his resignation in late 2016. 

Considered one of the key suspects of the scandal, Woo is accused of neglecting his duty and letting Park and Choi Soon-sil manipulate power without due political process. He allegedly peddled his influence to purge officials uncooperative of Park and Choi, including the resignation of Lee Seok-soo last August, which was rumored to be Woo’s doing. Lee was a special inspector who was trying to investigate Choi’s non-profit sports foundation, which also operated as Choi’s base for slush funds. Choi’s accused of receiving large amounts of money from chaebol conglomerates in return for political favors.

In Park’s corruption case, Woo is charged with perjury, abusing authority and dereliction of duty as the presidential secretary, among others. The charges don’t include (wrongly, critics say) of personally embezzling money.

From the inception of the investigations — led first by the South Korean prosecutors, then an independent probe, and now back to the prosecutors — many considered Woo Byung-woo the trickiest figure to indict because he has been known for planting “his people,” infamously dubbed by the media as the “Woo Byung-woo Line,” in the investigation bodies.

Woo was formerly a high-ranking state prosecutor. A shady, corrupt culture of favoritism among prosecutors is widely criticized in South Korea, and many see the reforming of South Korea’s prosecution as an important task, especially in the aftermath of Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal.

“Even the top management in South Korea’s prosecution, to which the [Woo Byung-woo Line] extends, is suspected of turning a blind eye,” said the Minjoo lawmakers who proposed the “Woo Byung-woo bill” last week.

According to daily newspaper Segye Ilbo, six Blue House aides, formerly prosecutors, allegedly submitted a handwritten statement that denounced Woo’s arrest writ as “unjust” and refuted his charges. “Some see this as evidence that the Woo Byung-woo Line within the prosecution is still as mighty as ever,” wrote Segye Ilbo.

Part of the problem is, many of the prosecutors who have investigated Woo know him too well, either through working together and/or having trained together before becoming official prosecutors. Woo, by the way, was seen as a wunderkind for passing his judicial exam at the age of 20 in 1987.

According to an exclusive by daily newspaper Hankyoreh, between last July and October, Woo had exchanged over 1,000 phone calls with Ahn Tae-geun, the director of South Korea’s main prosecution body. Ahn denied talking about the Choi Soon-sil/Park Geun-hye scandal. “We usually talk on the phone often to discuss laws related to prosecution, and various allegations related to prosecutors,” Ahn told Hankyoreh. “We have never said anything about the investigations [related to the Park Geun-hye scandal].”

Meanwhile, Woo didn’t attend the trial preparation hearing on May 1, a preliminary stage before the actual trial where the accused is not obliged to attend. Hankyoreh reported that the court designated the second trial preparation hearing to June 2, soon after which it will start Woo Byung-woo’s trial.

 

Cover image: Woo Byung-woo’s actual scope of influence is still very much in the shadows. (Source: YTN)

Jieun Choi is staff writer at Korea Exposé. She has worked in the art industry and startups in Hong Kong and Australia.