The prosecution has been a target of persistent public criticism, which centered on its possession of excessive power, abuse of the power -- sometimes for the benefit of the government in power -- and sporadic cases of corruption and other misdeeds committed by prosecutors.
Political and public calls for addressing those problems have grown whenever a new administration came, and that was no exception with the government of President Moon Jae-in.
Moon, who took power in the wake of a massive corruption scandal that ousted former President Park Geun-hye, has promised to make sure that no agency wields excessive power and to reform the prosecution in that regard.
So began the move to reform the state prosecution, the top law-enforcement authority and one of the most powerful agencies in the country. The Moon administration proposed – among other things – the establishment of a new investigation agency that will handle corruption and other crimes involving senior public officials, including the president, and their family members, judges and prosecutors.
In line with the administration’s push, the National Assembly launched an ad-hoc panel for reform of the prosecution and the judiciary. But the prosecution, as it did in the past, is trying to circumvent the pressure and protect its vested interests.
What Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il told the parliamentary reform committee Tuesday sums up the prosecution’s position. In short, the self-reform measures outlined by the chief prosecutor fall far short of reducing the power and guaranteeing political neutrality of the prosecution.
First, Moon indicated his consent to the proposal to set up a new investigation agency that will tackle cases involving senior public officials. That represents a departure from the position of the prosecution, because it had opposed any such idea.
But Moon quickly added that the prosecution also should be allowed to investigate cases involving senior officials. He also argued that the envisaged investigative authority should be put under the executive branch to ensure check and balance among the three branches of government.
In other words, the chief prosecutor opposes the plan -- agreed on by the Justice Ministry and the parliamentary panel -- to give the agency exclusive rights to investigate senior officials and complete independence.
Moon also stuck to the prosecution’s position on how to redistribute investigative authority and power between the prosecution and the police.
He said the prosecution was willing to have the police directly investigate more criminal cases and hand over the investigation of cases involving organized crime and narcotics to other investigative agencies.
But the prosecutor general made it clear that the prosecution should retain the right to supervise all investigations, request arrest warrants and indict criminal suspects. This means the prosecution, with the exception of the envisaged investigation agency for senior officials, will continue to hold its monopoly on prosecuting criminal suspects.
Moon and other prosecutors insist that giving greater investigative authority and the right to indict to the police may result in infringement of human rights. This is nonsense. It is true that police officers commit misdeeds, but are prosecutors free from such risks? Just look at the sweeping #MeToo movement that was touched off in South Korea by a female prosecutor who accused her superiors of sexual misconduct.
All in all, Moon’s suggestions are superficial, aimed only at preserving his agency’s firm grip on investigative power. He also did not provide any convincing measures to ensure the political independence of the prosecution. Unless something is done from the outside, the prosecution will remain as powerful as it is now.
That leaves President Moon and the National Assembly a mandate to come up with stronger and more effective measures to overhaul the prosecution, so that it can be reborn as a bona fide law-enforcement authority whose raison d’etre is only the rule of law.