A star is born, one too bright to behold without wondering how long it could burn. Yoon Seok-yeol, South Korea’s new prosecutor-general, has already led investigations into “past evils” for two years as head of the Seoul Prosecutors’ Office amid claims that President Moon Jae-in was carrying out a political vendetta.
Until the meteoric rise of his career, one rarely seen in the nation’s history of law enforcement, he had moved from one remote provincial prosecutors’ office to another. Then came the turbulence in the Park Geun-hye administration with the disclosure of the Choi Sun-sil scandal.
He was picked as a special investigator under an independent counsel digging into presidential wrongdoings. Candlelight protests eventually removed Park from office, Moon Jae-in was elected and Yoon headed the mission to put the former elite behind bars. Giving him the letter of appointment at the Blue House last week, a beaming Moon affectionately called him “our dear Mr. Prosecutor-General.”
Yoon got the chance of a lifetime in 2013, when he was assigned to a special investigation team on state intelligence agents’ manipulation of public opinion. He attracted public attention when, during a National Assembly hearing session, he complained he could not do his job properly because of interference from above. That unusual act for a prosecutor earned him admiration from then opposition lawmakers, including those who are now in power.
Yoon suffered the consequence of being “sequestered” in metropolitan cities Daejeon and Daegu until he was recruited by independent counsel Park Young-soo. In January 2017, Yoon arrested Samsung Group leader Lee Jae-yong on charges of bribing Park via her close confidante Choi. Immediately after his election, Moon gave Yoon the powerful job of chief of the Seoul prosecutors’ office.
During the 2013 Assembly hearing, he famously said that he had rapped his chief prosecutor “because I love my organization, not any person thereof.” Upon taking the highest office last week, he stated he would strive to make the prosecution “an organization for the people.” The two statements are not inconsistent of course, but one may wonder how the top prosecutor would identify “the people.”
Over the past two years and two months, the prosecution indicted two former presidents, three former chiefs of state intelligence and a former chief justice, all under arrest, and has prosecuted more than 100 other former officials and business executives. Four people, including a three-star Army general and a prosecutor, died by suicide while under investigation.
President Moon asked Yoon to “deal sternly” with any misdeeds found in the Blue House, administration offices and the ruling party. This is a plain credo in law enforcement that does not particularly require presidential emphasis. What the chief executive perhaps had in mind was the apparent receding of revolutionary fervor among those exercising power with him.
Moon and his aides have persistently stressed the revolutionary quality of the political transition in this country since 2016, which they believed justify the widespread indictments of former officials. The impact of the Choi scandal was so profound that people initially accepted condemnation of the past figures to a degree.
They reacted positively to disclosures of the former president’s reclusive style of governance and absence of communication even within the inner circle, forced donations by conglomerates to the Choi family’s private interests and the military’s contingency planning for a social upheaval during candlelight demonstrations. They have helped the approval rate of the Moon presidency hover in the 40-50 percent range through the past year or so.
Yet, criminal procedures against so many former officials dragged on way beyond the statutory time limit until final sentencing. Doubts have been raised about the adequacy of the charges and punishment requested, especially for the judiciary leaders who were accused of clandestine deals with Park and former heads of state intelligence charged with delivering official funds to the Blue House. Complaints over the economic slowdown and effects of anti-Moon campaigns by opposition groups add to these objections.
Piteous, however, are the opposition forces, who will be allowed some hope of getting votes only when economic slump continues and North Korea continues to evade taking substantial steps for denuclearization. They remain as divided as they were at the time of Park’s ouster and no clear leaders have emerged in the opposition ranks to assert themselves as trustworthy alternatives to those in power.
Many people both on the left and right believe that if conservatives deserved the loss of power in 2017, little has changed with the present members of the Liberty Korea Party and the breakaway Bareunmirae Party, who share little prospect of success in general elections in the spring of 2020.
On the other hand, the leftist government and its party should begin to see that the business of condemning the past evils could be a double-edged sword if the campaign stretches into the latter half of their five-year tenure. The public’s sense of fatigue on the protracted legal process grows day by day. The spotlight given to the launching of the Yoon Seok-ryeol prosecution could signal an indefinite extension of the drive.
Moon’s focus on correcting the past wrongs while uncertainties grow on the future has dual objectives: one part is to demonstrate the present administration’s dedication to justice, and people know that the other is to suppress the resurgence of the conservative right. It is exorbitant to try to achieve both by the force of law. The latter is better left for the voters to decide.
Yoon will team up with Cho Kuk, tapped as justice minister by President Moon, who had retained the former Seoul National University professor as a top adviser on internal affairs. The two will make an ideal pair if they share the wisdom of seeing the nation’s dire external situation and dedicate their service to domestic peace, freeing themselves from obsession with the past.
For two years, South Korea has enjoyed the global distinction of having two elected former presidents stand separate trials at the same time, though fortunately not on charges of treason. As few historians would agree to define the turmoil since 2016 as a revolution, government leaders are advised to correct their views accordingly.
The current chapter needs to be wrapped up in the typical Korean way of restraint and moderation as shown in the 1987 democratic reforms. The new prosecutor-general can help a lot if he exercises his authority with prudence and a little bit of tolerance.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.