As President Moon Jae-in said, it is time to reform the prosecution.
A recent scandal involving senior prosecutors adds to the urgency to overhaul the nation’s top law-enforcement authority.
The scandal surrounds a dinner on April 21, during which two groups of senior prosecutors -- one from the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office and the other from the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the Justice Ministry -- dined and drank together.
The problem is that the heads of the two groups were involved in the investigation of the influence-peddling and corruption scandal involving ousted President Park Geun-hye and her confidante Choi Soon-sil. Another key target of the monthslong probe was Woo Byung-woo, a former senior prosecutor who served as Park’s top aide.
More troubling is that the two groups exchanged envelopes of cash. Ahn Tae-geun, director of the bureau, gave all but one of the seven prosecutors from the district office 700,000 won ($625) to 1 million won each.
Lee Young-ryeol, chief of the district office, which ran the team that investigated the Park-Choi scandal, also gave 1 million won to each of the two ministry officials who accompanied Ahn.
There are at least two big questions that should be answered. The first is about what motivated them to have dinner only four days after Lee’s team finished its probe into the Park-Choi scandal and indicted the two and Woo.
Ahn had been in frequent contact with Woo last year -- reports said that they had had about 1,000 telephone conversations since last August -- and therefore should have been subject to the investigation into Park, Choi and Woo. But Ahn did not face any charges. Perhaps Ahn wanted to repay what he owes the investigation team by buying drinks and offering cash.
That should bolster the suspicion that the prosecution glossed over Woo’s wrongdoings -- he is one of the few suspects indicted without physical detention -- mainly because he was a senior prosecutor and maintained close connections within the prosecution while serving as Park’s top aide overseeing law-enforcement authorities.
The second question is about the exchange of envelopes of cash. Both sides say that the money came from “special business expenses,” which refers to government money used for “special activities” such as investigation and clandestine information gathering.
That opens the possibility of Ahn and Lee having embezzled government money. Moreover, both of them may have violated an anti-graft law that took effect last year, which limits offering meals, entertainment or cash gifts to public officials.
Under Moon’s orders, officials began looking into the case. However, it would be better to conduct a government-wide examination to find out whether special business expenses are being used appropriately.
From a broader perspective, the scandal could not have come at a better time for Moon and a worse time for the prosecution, as the new president has put reforming the prosecution as one of his top priorities.
Moon’s call is widely supported by the public because many believe Park’s arbitrary use of powerful agencies, like the prosecution, and the prosecution’s tendency to pander to the government in power was one of the root causes of the Park-Choi scandal.
On Friday, Moon sent both Lee and Ahn to provincial offices -- they offered to retire from the prosecution but their resignations are pending till the completion of the probe -- and replaced them with senior prosecutors Yoon Seok-yeol and Park Kyun-taek. Moon’s decision to pick Yoon, who had been in discord with the Park administration over political issues, is seen as symbolizing the start of a wide-ranging personnel reshuffle.
But real reform of the prosecution requires more than the purge of senior prosecutors who committed misdeeds and who were close to the Park administration.
During his campaign, Moon promised to strip the prosecution of some of its powers. He called for the creation of an independent inspection body in charge of investigating senior civil servants, including prosecutors, and the handing over of the prosecution’s investigative authority to the police.
Equally important is guaranteeing and ensuring political independence of the prosecution. This means the Moon administration itself should shift away from the past and resist any temptation to use the prosecution for political purposes.