A power abuse scandal surrounding South Korea's Supreme Court is creating a huge stir amid snowballing allegations about former court leaders' politicking and manipulation under a past conservative government.
The scandal centers around hundreds of documents written by the National Court Administration (NCA), the top court's administrative office, under former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae, who was in office from 2011-17.
The powerful body in charge of administrative and personnel affairs of the judicial branch is alleged to have played a key role in Yang's campaign to set up a new court of appeals. The NCA devised plans to win support from top government officials while curbing progressive judges and opponents to its establishment.
After liberal President Moon Jae-in took office in May last year, the top court launched an internal probe into its past wrongdoings under his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who was ousted for corruption.
In its report in May the investigation team said it examined the NCA's documents produced during Yang's six-year term and that about 410 of them were related to the court's alleged misdeeds.
In June, the team made public 98 documents directly linked to its appeals court scheme, including plans to use politically sensitive trials to earn Park's support and monitor activities of dissenting judges.
The NCA officials, led by its then head, Lim Jong-hun, allegedly communicated frequently with Park's aides and influential politicians over the matter.
The probe team unveiled an additional 196 documents Tuesday that included plans to lobby lawmakers and the press.
Yang and senior former court officials are currently being investigated by the prosecution.
One of the most controversial cases is the trial of former spy chief Won Sei-hoon, who's been indicted for carrying out massive online opinion-rigging to spur favorable public sentiment for the conservative bloc.
His case is problematic for the legacy of the Park government since Won's conviction over the opinion-rigging potentially undermines the legitimacy of her presidency, as it raises doubt over her victory in the 2012 presidential election.
In April 2015, the Supreme Court unexpectedly announced that Won's case would be taken up by the full bench. Three months later, the case was sent back to the appeals court for retrial and the retrial was not held for another two years. In the meantime, Won was released on bail in October that year.
Won was found guilty in the Aug. 30 retrial held last year, after the new liberal Moon Jae-in administration took office following Park's ousting over an influence-peddling scandal. The top court finalized the ruling in April this year, nearly five years after the case was first tried.
Won's case was only one of many in Yang's long list of bait carefully selected to "cut deals" with Park.
According to the documents released by the NCA, now led by Yang's successor, Kim Meong-su, Yang and his officials pressured judges to put on hold litigations involving victims of Japan's wartime sexual slavery seeking compensation from a Japanese firm for their suffering.
The decision was allegedly made to keep in step with Park's diplomacy. South Korea signed a controversial pact with Japan in 2015 that, in a nutshell, agreed to draw a line under Japan's colonial rule of the peninsula and accept its unapologetic stance in exchange for a 1 billion-yen contribution.
The litigation only began to take off again recently after the scandal surfaced in earnest and sparked a strong backlash from the victims' side.
Another case is the trial regarding the tragic Sewol ferry sinking that claimed more than 300 lives in 2014. The documents revealed the top court had discussed which district court should be assigned to the case filed by the victims' families against the state and the shipping firm.
The Sewol sinking was yet another highly sensitive case that plagued the Park government because the government was blamed for the belated response to and handling of the accident. It also became one of the triggers that led to the nationwide motion for her impeachment and eventually her removal from office in March last year.
The top court also proposed the president have the final say about appointing justices for the court of appeals once it was established, according to the documents. It highlighted that the president's hand in the appointment process must be kept discreet so as to quell concern over judicial independence being undermined.
Yang, whose six-year term as top court chief ended in September last year, has denied the accusations and said there was "no unfair interference in trials" and that he never used them for bargaining. He also denied any disadvantage was meted out to judges who opposed his proposal to set up a court of appeals.
But the scandal is putting pressure on Yang to prove his innocence and his argument that there was no unfair interference in trials.
Current Chief Justice Kim has allowed the allegation to be investigated by prosecutors while issuing a formal apology to the public. But he has faced a backlash from the judiciary for weakening the foundation and independence of the court system. (Yonhap News)