Cheong Wa Dae, the ruling party and the government unveiled a police reform plan Monday, but it is questionable if this can prevent police from becoming too powerful and secure independence in investigations.
The plan calls for the establishment of a “national investigation headquarters” and the expanded test operation of local police agencies to be created and run by provincial governments.
The point of setting up the headquarters is to separate investigations from administration and intelligence gathering.
The plan was worked out in response to the prosecution’s opposition to a bill that would adjust the investigative authority of the prosecution and police. The bill authorizes police to investigate cases without being commanded by the prosecution and to terminate them on their own judgment. This has caused concern about unjust investigations by police.
Conflicts over the changes in investigative authority emerged late last month when the bill was fast-tracked in parliament in tandem with two other controversial ones. One involves the creation of an agency to investigate corruption by high-ranking public officials and the other revises the election system for lawmakers.
The ruling and three minor opposition parties fast-tracked the bills despite fierce protests by the main opposition party. Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il publicly opposed the changes to investigative authority. The prosecution has emphasized the need for its command of police investigations.
As Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party did not heed Moon, he called a news conference last week to reaffirm his opposition. Four days after the conference, the police reform plan was unveiled, apparently to soothe the prosecution. However, the plan did not deal with several issues raised by the prosecution, in particular police authority to open and close investigations.
It also raised concerns that the investigation headquarters may end up as a redundant organization or that it may be abused.
It is questionable if Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party have seriously considered the interests of people in drawing up the bill on investigative authority and the police reform plan.
Successful reform of the police entails preventing power abuse and ensuring that investigations are free from political influence.
The biggest problem is that the bills authorize the president to appoint the heads of both the investigation headquarters and the agency to investigate corruption by high-ranking officials. .
If Cheong Wa Dae appoints supporters of the president and says the truth behind certain cases needs to be found, the new agencies are likely to act according to the presidential office’s wishes. It would then be hard to expect fair and proper investigations.
This problem is not addressed, though Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party have argued that the plan ensures independent investigations. They argue that an outsider, such as a lawyer or a professor, will be appointed as head of the investigation headquarters.
But this raises suspicions that the ruling camp may be trying to open the door for outsiders on its side to intervene in police investigations. The head of the investigation headquarters may be a professor who enjoys the confidence of the president, like Cho Kuk, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, or a member of a leftist civic group on the same wavelength with the administration, like Lawyers for a Democratic Society.
Police have a lot to do with the everyday lives of ordinary people. Therefore, the bill on investigative authority and the police reform plan could cause inconvenience and confusion.
If police close a case based on their own judgment, the accuser would be left with the prosecution to turn to, but legal proceedings with the prosecution do not appear as familiar yet.
If local governments establish and operate their own police agencies, victims, suspects and witnesses may be questioned not only by local agencies but also by the investigation headquarters. Therefore, investigations may overlap.
Instead of creating another organization, it would be better to increase the efficiency of investigations and ensure checks and balances among related agencies.
Above all, investigations by either police or the prosecution must be kept independent from political power. Unless this issue is resolved, any reform would fail to gain public confidence.