On Tuesday, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office disbanded its Central Investigation Department, the most powerful department with a staff of elitist prosecutors. Its abolishment went down in the history of the nation’s prosecution as an event nothing short of epochal.
Its predecessor, the Central Investigation Bureau, which was inaugurated 52 years ago, changed its name to the Central Investigation Department in 1981. Then the department was given a strengthened mission to investigate corruption cases involving politicians, high-ranking government officials and private-sector elites.
The department accomplished its mission on numerous occasions. Most notable among its achievements was the arrest of former Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo on corruption charges. But its reputation was irrevocably tarnished on many occasions when quite a few investigations were perceived to be politically biased.
Though it was required to maintain political neutrality and investigative autonomy, it more often than not stood at the beck and call of the powers that be. It was often accused of being a “handmaiden of power” when it targeted political oppositionists for criminal investigations, in particular during the nation’s bygone era of military-backed dictatorships.
No wonder the department’s abolishment became one of the major campaign issues during the run-up to the presidential election in December. Not only the opposition candidate but President Park Geun-hye promised to disband the department and scale down the power of the prosecution as a whole.
Disbanding the department was not the end, but the beginning, of reform of the prosecution. Moreover, it has yet to be determined who will now investigate cases involving politicians and senior government officials and other cases involving business tycoons and other social elites and who will supervise such politically charged and high-profile investigations.
An initial step in this regard is being taken by Chae Dong-wook, the new prosecutor-general, whose nomination was endorsed by both the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition Democratic United Party when his confirmation hearing was recently held at the National Assembly. Chae has promised not to receive reports on investigations from chiefs of the district prosecutors’ offices in a tete-a-tete. He has also promised neither to receive a separate report from a prosecutor investigating a case of great concern to the public nor to give any instruction to the prosecutor. In other words, he promises to carry out his supervision through the chain of command in an impartial and transparent manner.
Chae’s commitment to impartiality and transparency undoubtedly is praiseworthy. But that will not be enough. Impartiality and transparency, together with political neutrality, must be institutionally guaranteed. In this regard, a special committee organized by the prosecution to deliberate on its reform has an important job to do.
When it meets next Wednesday, the committee, which includes sharp-tongued outsiders as its members, is set to discuss what needs to be done for the kind of investigations that were conducted by the Central Investigation Department. One of the ideas is to create a new department empowered to supervise and support a district prosecutors’ office when it launches such an investigation.
Another key reform proposal is to create an office of independent counsel that would stand ready to launch a criminal investigation on its own when an investigation conducted by the prosecution was deemed to have been inadequate or when the prosecution chose not to bring criminal charges against a suspect for a dubious reason.
True, it is possible for an independent counsel to launch an investigation if the National Assembly passes an underlying bill. But the procedure is so complicated. As an alternative, President Park made an election promise to create a permanent office of independent counsel.
The prosecution, which does not want its authority to bring charges against criminal suspects to be compromised by an independent counsel more frequently, prefers the current system to the proposed creation of an independent counsel office. That is understandable.
But the prosecution would do well not to lobby the parliamentary Legislation and Judiciary Committee, many of whose members are prosecutors-turned lawmakers. The proposal to create an office of independent counsel is justified by the prosecution’s so many botched investigations, including a recent one into the illicit purchase by former President Lee Myung-bak of land for his retirement home on the outskirts of Seoul.