Classified documents from 2014 ferry sinking have been accessed by Prosecutors

John Kim, Dec. 15, 2017, 11:02 a.m.

Prosecutors said Friday they have accessed classified presidential documents from the previous Park Geun-hye government regarding the 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300 passengers, as part of their probe into suspicions that Park's office doctored the timeline of the initial report on the tragedy. In October, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, now led by liberal President Moon Jae-in, made a revelation that the preceding government may have deliberately altered the time it had first reported to then-President Park about the accident, to 10 a.m. from 9:30 a.m., in an apparent attempt to conceal the president's unaccounted whereabouts at the time of the ship sinking.

Cheong Wa Dae has formally filed a complaint with the prosecution, seeking a probe against Park's key aides, including then chief of staff Kim Ki-choon on possible charges of document falsification and abuse of power. The Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office said it executed a search warrant it had obtained from the Seoul High Court and has visited the Presidential Archives in Sejong, south of Seoul, over a number of occasions since last week to access the confidential files.

Presidential documents are normally sealed for up to 30 years from the end of presidencies. But an exception is allowed by law for their disclosure if it is considered vital evidence in an investigation. It has to be open upon parliamentary approval from two-thirds of the seats and a court warrant subsequently issued by the head of the high court. The documents were sealed by then-Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn in March this year, who was also the acting president after Park was removed from office in that month over an influence-peddling scandal involving her close friend.

The then government's mishandling of the Sewol ferry disaster later became one of the reasons that triggered moves toward Park's impeachment amid intense public criticism, as her administration had never been clear about where she was around the time of the sinking. Prosecutors said they have been focusing the probe to find out if there were any fabrications in instruction and report logs after the fact, and whether there were any intentional orders from high-level officials.

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