Reform of the prosecution has been a hot issue in Korea for years. Opposition parties have long called for reform to ensure prosecutors’ political independence and fairness in investigating wrongdoings involving politicians and public officials.
Prosecutorial reform was a major campaign issue during the presidential election in 2012. After the election, the main opposition Democratic Party has persistently pressed the ruling Saenuri Party to follow up with the reform pledges President Park Geun-hye made on the campaign trail.
Their dispute ended last week with the passage of two reform bills through the National Assembly. To cut a long story short, the two bills are disappointing as they are unlikely to change the status quo.
One bill is about the launch of an independent counsel investigation. The National Assembly has to pass a bill each time it wants to launch a special counsel probe. When lawmakers approve a bill, the president then appoints a special prosecutor from among the candidates recommended by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
This appointment procedure takes time, causing a delay in launching an investigation. So Park promised to introduce a standing special counsel system to eliminate the cumbersome appointment procedure.
The new system that will be put in place in June, however, is not much different from the present one. It still requires the appointment of a special prosecutor each time lawmakers want to get an independent probe launched.
One difference is that lawmakers will be able to approve a probe through a floor vote without having to pass a bill. But this cannot be seen as a big improvement, as launching a probe still requires a majority vote.
One improvement is that a special counsel investigation will be launched immediately when the minister of justice files a request with the Assembly to probe wrongdoings involving prosecutors.
The other bill is more disappointing. It is about the introduction of a special inspector system to keep track of the spouses and close relatives of the president and senior presidential aides.
Park’s original idea was to bring under constant scrutiny of the special inspector not just presidential relatives and aides but all powerful public officials, including lawmakers, the prime minister, ministers, heads of public agencies, judges and prosecutors.
But lawmakers excluded themselves from the bill without offering a convincing explanation. To avoid criticism, they excluded other public officials as well.
Furthermore, special inspectors are special in name only, as they will not be given the authority to investigate. All that they can do is to keep track of presidential relatives and aides and ask them to submit data when they are suspected of being involved in wrongdoings. Obviously, little can be expected of such a toothless institution.