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[News Focus] Bareunmirae Party clashes with ruling party, civic group over independent investigative agency

Minor opposition’s alternative just a ‘bigger special crime squad,’ says representative of Lawyers for a Democratic Society

The minor opposition Bareunmirae Party has presented an unexpected stumbling block for the establishment of an independent agency to uncover wrongdoing by high-level government officials and their relatives.

The party supports the core idea behind the government’s plan to form an independent agency, but has sparked contentious debate by proposing that the new agency have a narrower range of authority -- without the power to indict criminal suspects.

Last month the Bareunmirae Party put forth its vision for an independent investigative agency that would conduct probes and file motions, arguing the ruling Democratic Party’s plan as written would create an agency with “superpowers.”

“The independent investigative agency must not be a power above the prosecution. It must not further strengthen the president’s authority, setting aside the reform of the prosecution. Absolute power is bound to become corrupt,” said Bareunmirae Party Floor Leader Kim Kwan-young.

Bareunmirae Party floor leader Kim Kwan-young speaks at a party policy meeting on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Bareunmirae Party floor leader Kim Kwan-young speaks at a party policy meeting on Thursday. (Yonhap)

“If our party’s proposal is not accepted, we have decided not to continue the fast-track process,” Kim added.

In the days since the Burning Sun scandal raised suspicion that police had corrupt ties with K-pop star and businessman Seungri, public consensus has favored the creation of an independent investigative agency. This was compounded by additional testimony from witnesses in the Kim Hak-eui scandal, suggesting that prosecutors may have acted inappropriately in dropping charges against the former vice minister of justice.

Kim is alleged to have accepted bribes from a businessman, Yoon Joong-cheon, in the form of sex with women who may have been coerced into taking part. The alleged offenses are believed to have taken place at Yoon’s country house.

Of 502 adults who responded to a survey by local pollster Real Meter, released late last month, 65.2 percent said they supported the creation of an independent investigative agency, whereas 23.8 percent expressed opposition.

Of the 322 adults who said they were in favor of an independent investigative agency, 59.4 percent said they would oppose the creation of such an agency if it lacked the authority to indict criminal suspects.

In the Kim Hak-eui investigation, prosecutors dismissed a police request for an international travel ban for Kim on March 27, 2013. On June 18 of that year they denied a warrant for Kim’s arrest, and a few weeks later on July 2 they denied a warrant for Yoon’s arrest as well.

“The agency can conduct compulsory investigation, which would draw attention from the media. If the prosecution does not indict a case with the intention of covering up for a fellow prosecutor, it would have to write out reasons for dropping the case in a document and send it back to the agency,” said Rep. Oh Shin-hwan of the Bareunmirae Party.

“If the head of the agency concludes (the prosecution) is unjust, the agency chief can give a media briefing and file a motion with the high court,” he added.

Oh Shin-hwan is the assistant administrator of the National Assembly’s special committee on judicial reform. In 2017 he proposed a bill to establish an independent investigative agency without the authority to indict suspects.

Signaling a complex road ahead, local civic group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy demolished the party’s proposal, saying it would undermine the goal of reforming the prosecution and that the end result would be no more than a bigger-than-average special crime squad.

“An independent investigative agency that cannot prosecute will blur the main purpose of reforming the prosecution, because it would continue to have exclusive rights to indict,” said Kim Jun-woo, an attorney and vice secretary general at Lawyers for a Democratic Society.

“Bills proposed guarantee the political neutrality of the agency chief, whose nomination would largely be impacted by the National Assembly. Ultimately, indictment rights are crucial for the agency and without them the agency would merely be a police division with a little bit more authority than the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s current special crime squad,” he added.

Kim also stressed that it was unusual for high courts to approve motions to prosecute suspects after prosecutors have dropped charges, with their success rate standing at less than 1 percent.

High courts nationwide approved motions in only 744 such cases between 2013 and 2017, according to Supreme Court data provided to Rep. Park Ju-min of the Democratic Party. Of the 100,972 motions filed, those that received court approval comprised 0.77 percent.

Supporters of the government’s vision for the agency point to examples in other countries. In the UK, for instance, the Serious Fraud Office is a nonministerial government department established in 1987 with 500 staff members tasked with investigating crimes such as corruption, bribery and massive fraud. It has the authority both to investigate and prosecute.

With the deadlock holding back the fast-tracking of the proposal, President Moon Jae-in, who had vowed to set up the independent investigative agency during his election campaign, reiterated the need for the new body last month.

“Citizens are outraged by the unlawful behavior of the privileged class, poor investigations caused by pressure from outside forces, and allegations of protection and the cover-up of cases involving those with power. The urgency of the independent investigative agency has once again been confirmed,” Moon said.

By Kim Bo-gyung (