The prosecution Sunday launched an investigation into a high-profile scandal in which recently deceased businessman Sung Woan-jong claimed he had given kickbacks to ruling Saenuri Party members and close confidants of President Park Geun-hye.
In an emergency meeting chaired by Prosecutor General Kim Jin-tae, the prosecution established a 10-person special investigation team, officials said. The team will be headed by Daejeon's chief prosecutor Moon Moo-il under the supervision of chief prosecutor Kim, they added. The team will officially begin the probe on Monday.
The move came shortly after Saenuri Party chairman Kim Moo-sung urged a "swift and thorough" investigation into Sung's memo implicating Park's closest aides in the bribery scandals.
"The ideal thing right now is for the prosecutors to conduct a swift investigation into the matter to discover the truth, and they should leave no stone unturned," Kim said in an emergency press conference at the party's headquarters. "We do not have the slightest intention to protect (the accused) from the probe."
Sung, the former head of Keangnam Enterprises, was found dead Thursday in an apparent suicide, just hours before a local court was to issue an arrest warrant for embezzlement and his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal related to a resources development project by the previous Lee Myung-bak administration.
He was carrying a memo that had the names of eight political heavyweights, including Park's former chiefs of staff Kim Ki-choon and Huh Tae-yeol, along with the incumbent prime minister and Saenuri lawmaker Lee Wan-koo.
On Friday, the local daily Kyunghyang Shinmun revealed a recording of Sung's interview in which he claimed that he handed US$100,000 (S$136,805) and 700 million won (S$874,223) to Kim and Huh, respectively, in line with the content of the memo. Later in the day, the daily disclosed another recording of Sung saying he handed Saenuri Rep. Hong Moon-jong, who managed President Park's election campaign, 200 million won to be used during the campaign.
"The memo written by the deceased is casting doubts upon entire political circles, hindering the entire government affairs," said Saenuri chief Kim. "Any attempts to cover up irregularities can only spark further suspicion. The Saenuri Party will make sure no outside influence will sway the prosecution's investigation."
He said he did not discuss the content of the press conference with the president, explaining such consultation would be inappropriate since her aides' names are included in what has been dubbed the "Sung Woan-jong list."
Kim also revealed that Sung called him just days before his death to plead innocence. But the ruling party leader ― whose name was not included in Sung's list ― also said he did not recognise the phone number of Sung, the businessman who was a Saenuri lawmaker until 2014.
All eight politicians whose names were on Sung's list had claimed they did not have a close relationship with the deceased and denied ever receiving money. Rep. Hong held a press conference Saturday and vowed to retire from politics if he "had received even a penny" from Sung.
Despite the ruling party feverishly attempting put distance between Sung and themselves, the revelation is likely to affect the upcoming by-election slated for April 29. Kim admitted there is "no question" that the incident spells bad news for the ruling party.
Moon Jae-in, the leader of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, denounced the incident as an "unprecedented corruption case in which the president's aides have been revealed to have received huge bribes."
"The people whose names appeared on the list must lay down their positions and ranks and co-operate willingly with the investigation," he said, adding that the probe is likely to be hindered as the people accused of corruption are all high-ranking officials.
The bribery scandal is expected to be high on the agenda of the four-day interpellation session that will open in the National Assembly tomorrow, along with government-proposed pension reform, possible deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, and salvaging the sunken Sewol ferry.