Last Thursday, the nation’s top court confirmed a prison term and fines for former senior prosecutor Kim Kwang-joon for taking kickbacks worth at least 400 million won ($380,000) from suspects engaging in business irregularities.
The 53-year-old ex-prosecutor was sentenced to seven years behind bars. He was also ordered to pay a criminal fine of 100 million won and, in restitution for the bribery, additional charges of 450 million won.
Before Kim was indicted in late 2012, the two major law enforcement authorities ― the prosecution and police ― had been clashing over which agency should investigate his bribery allegation.
While the police initially wanted to take on the investigation into the kickback scandal, the prosecution shortly formed its own team to handle the case and pressured the police to halt its internal, unofficial probe.
Though Kim was eventually subjected to criminal punishment by indictment by an extraordinarily tasked prosecutor, high-ranking policemen have continued to express their discontent with the prosecution’s long-standing practice: not willing to entrust the police with the interrogation of some prosecutors’ corruption practices.
The senior police officials alleged that the prosecution has sought to conclude scrutiny into this kind of case as soon as possible in a low-key manner without tracing sufficient evidence and further allegations.
During the Lee Myung-bak administration, similar cases were seen of corruption scandals involving so-called “sponsor prosecutors,” who were reportedly offered sexual flavors. The “Grandeur prosecutor” and “Benz female prosecutor” were among those being provided premium sedans as reported kickbacks.
But some of them were acquitted of bribery charges due to a lack of evidence ― whether the goods were given to the prosecutors as a reward.
Pundits have said that Kim’s seven-year imprisonment is an epoch-making verdict, compared to past decades. They cite a case from the late 1990s when several senior prosecutors had to quit for taking bribes. But none of them were convicted.
The police have claimed that they should be given the authority to look into corrupt prosecutors, saying the prosecution has been lukewarm on their own when it comes to cases of malfeasance.
“As we are under control of the prosecution, there were many cases in which we had to give up launching investigations despite obtaining significant intelligence on high-profile suspects such as lawmakers and business tycoons as well as prosecutors,” said an Incheon police official.
Some police argued that the prosecution has at times not been neutral or independent in its investigation of politicians, top government officials or chaebol families.
A prosecutor privately admitted that the prosecution has tried not to lose its vested right in terms of investigation-control authority. But concerning investigators’ misdeeds, he alleged that the police have also sought to prevent corruption from one of their own from being made public.
A prosecutor-turned-lawyer raised the possibility that some policemen could abuse or exploit the authority if given it.
The “adjustment of the criminal investigation right” was a key pledge in President Park Geun-hye’s campaign in 2012.
The pledge features reforming the prosecution structure and redefining the roles of the two agencies, putting the police in charge of launching investigations ― without garnering approval by the prosecution as a spinoff ― with the prosecution focusing only on indictments based on the police’s probes.
In fulfilling Park’s pledge, the prosecution scrapped the Central Investigation Department at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, which was often denounced for conducting biased probes into politically sensitive incidents.
But some lawyers say the department’s abolishment is far from a public consensus-based reform. It was carried out not by the National Assembly but by the prosecution itself, which is regarded as a passive overhaul rather than a full-fledged one.
It does not seem that prosecutors will easily surrender a portion of their vested authority at this stage. The Park administration also has yet to lay out a road map to push for a revision of the law.
The National Police Agency is not entitled to ask a court to issue an arrest warrant for a suspect without attaining prior consent by the prosecutors’ office. The latter has held two exclusive rights of requesting warrants and making indictments under the nation’s criminal procedure law, which was set 53 years ago.
In contrast, police agencies in major developed countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, hold an independent investigation authority.
During his presidency Roh Moo-hyun’s vision to revamp the prosecution faced severe backlash from a number of prosecutors.
By Kim Yon-se (firstname.lastname@example.org)