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[Editorial] Reform the prosecution

Prosecutors’ powers need to be checked

Justice Minister Kim Hyun-woong and Prosecutor General Kim Soo-nam apologized Monday over the arrest of Jin Kyung-joon, a senior prosecutor, for taking bribes from a leading online games firm.

On Sunday, Jin became the first high-ranking prosecutor in the 68-year history of the nation’s prosecution system to be arrested while in office. He is accused of making some 12 billion won ($10.5 million) through shady stock transactions involving Nexon Co.

Jin is also alleged to have pressured Hanjin Group to award contracts worth 13 billion won to a cleaning company run by his brother-in-law in return for halting investigations into the group for alleged tax evasion.

The two top law enforcement officials lamented that a senior prosecutor who should set an example in fighting corruption had become involved in an “unimaginable” corruption case.

They also pledged efforts to ensure that such a case would not happen again. Minister Kim said he would tighten control over prosecutors to prevent a recurrence of similar cases in the future, while Prosecutor General Kim said he would toughen compliance policies for prosecutors.

The top prosecutor suggested that surveillance of asset growth for high-ranking prosecutors would have to be strengthened to prevent them from getting involved in corrupt practices.

He also said prosecutors and investigators in charge of probing stock market-related cases would have to be banned from making investments in securities.

In addition, he said prosecutors who have tarnished the honor of the organization by receiving bribes should not be allowed to work as lawyers after leaving the public service.

Yet few, if any, took the apologies and reform pledges of the two top officials seriously. The public is well aware that the prosecution cannot be reformed by simply strengthening surveillance on prosecutors’ assets or banning investment in stocks.

The problem stems from the excessive power conferred on prosecutors. Korean prosecutors are more powerful than their peers in other countries. They have authority to investigate and to command police investigations. Furthermore, they enjoy the exclusive right to indict criminal suspects and have their own investigative manpower.

While prosecutors wield enormous power, they generally lack the strong moral fiber and integrity that would help them maintain political independence and resist temptations to abuse their power for personal gains. 

As a result, Korea’s prosecution has become a major source of corruption rather than a bastion against it. This has been well illustrated by an unending series of corruption scandals involving former and incumbent prosecutors.

Jin’s case is only the latest reminder of the need to curtail or check prosecutors’ power as unchallenged power tends to breed arrogance and corruption.

HIs arrest has prompted opposition parties to push for the establishment of an organization specializing in investigation into corruption cases involving high-ranking officials, including prosecutors. The ruling party should support the move.

Political parties also need to explore ways to curb prosecutors’ monopoly of the right to indict criminal suspects.
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