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Constitutional Court chief nominee apologizes over 1980 ruling

Constitutional Court President nominee Kim Yi-su apologized over controversial rulings he made against citizen protesters in a democratic uprising in 1980, during his confirmation hearing Wednesday.

“I sincerely apologize to those who still suffer from my past rulings,” Kim said. “I was inexperienced then, and it was hard for me to go against existing laws of that time.”

As a military judge in 1980, he handed down punishments to protestors who fought against the authoritarian regime led by military Gen. Chun Doo-hwan in the southern city of Gwangju.

He sentenced a bus driver to death after the driver charged a police line, killing four police officers and injuring four others. He also ordered a one-year jail term to a high school student who participated in the rally.

Constitutional Court Chief nominee Kim Yi-su speaks during a parliamentary confirmation hearing at the National Assembly on June 7, 2017. (Yonhap)
Constitutional Court Chief nominee Kim Yi-su speaks during a parliamentary confirmation hearing at the National Assembly on June 7, 2017. (Yonhap)

Calling the Gwangju incident a democratic resistance against the anti-Constitutional regime, the nominee said the past experience is an excruciating scar in his life and judicial career.

“On the other hand, it has become an inner mirror on which I reflect on myself as a judge. The desire for democracy and constitutional order witnessed in the Gwangju democratic uprising has become the pillar and support for my career,” he said.

During the confirmation hearing, parliamentarians from opposition conservative blocs took issue with his “political bias,” citing a court case in 2014.

In a landmark ruling, the nine-member Constitutional Court disbanded the far-left Unified Progressive Party for its pro-North Korean activities. Kim was the sole dissenter, opposing the forceful dismantling of the political party. He argued that individuals should be punished by the National Security Law and be expelled from the National Assembly, but not the party itself.

When asked whether he respects the top court’s decision, he made it clear that he does.

“I wanted to show what the fundamental spirit of democracy is by presenting a minority opinion. A society is healthy when minority opinions exist, and it also reflects the trust toward the Constitutional Court,” he said.

Lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party sought to defend the nominee, complimenting him for not compromising his principles.

However, the attack on Kim’s political identity was not the end of the dispute. Lawmakers from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party accused him of taking a left-leaning stance, citing over 18 more court cases in which he had presented his minority opinion.

“You have made some minority opinions that go in line with the stances of the Democratic Party. How can we appoint a top court chief who would blindly follow the ruling party?” Rep. Kwak Sang-do of the conservative party said.

Kim refuted the claim and called Rep. Kwak’s statement an insult.

“I have never followed the Democratic Party to set my stance on anything. If you turn that logic around, that means the decisions made by other constitutional judges were also affected by other parties,” Kim said.

In his opening speech, the 64-year-old nominee vowed to pursue the values of harmony and balance, considering the many ideological and social conflicts in Korean society.

“The value of the Constitution should be protected by all the citizens. ... If I am allowed to head the Constitutional Court, I will do my best to fulfill the duty of protecting the Constitution.”

President Moon Jae-in tapped Kim to head the nation’s top court on May 19. The top post has been vacant since former Court chief Park Han-chul retired in January.

To be appointed, the justice nominee requires approval from a majority of lawmakers in the 299-member National Assembly.

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)
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