[News Focus] 57% of Koreans support prosecution reform despite Cho Kuk scandal: poll

By Kim Yon-se

Gyeongsang provinces also see proponents of reform outstrip opponents

  • Published : Sept 17, 2019 - 15:26
  • Updated : Sept 18, 2019 - 03:20

SEJONG -- An interest among the people under the Moon Jae-in administration is whether an independent investigative agency, which holds the authority to indict crime-suspected prosecutors or other public officials, will be launched.

The agency, which is being pushed in the 20th National Assembly, has been dubbed the Senior Civil Servant Crime Investigation unit.

Previous administrations and legislatures had also tried and failed to create such a body, such as the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s proposal for a Senior Civil Servant Corruption Investigation unit.

Under the Moon government, the motion on setting up the special unit has been proposed to the Assembly as a “fast-track” bill for automatic advance to the parliamentary plenary session for a vote.

Earlier this year, the ruling Democratic Party agreed with three minor opposition parties including the Bareunmirae Party on the fast-track proposal. But the main opposition Liberty Korea Party has been strongly protesting against it.

While the agency’s probe targets include the president, lawmakers and senior government officials in the bill, it will further hold a further authority to “indict” judges, prosecutors and high-ranking policemen, aside from its right to investigate the three job groups. The number of investigation-only targets is estimated at about 7,200 individuals, of whom 5,700 are also targeted for indictment.

Then-senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Moon Jae-in (left, incumbent President of South Korea) talks with then-Justice Minister Kang Kum-sil at Cheong Wa Dae in April 2003. They pushed for a prosecution reform under the initiative of then-President Roh Moo-hyun, but failed to attain their goal in the backlash from right-wing politicians and a group of senior prosecutors. (Yonhap)

Alongside the Liberty Korea Party, senior prosecutors have also expressed skepticism toward the independent agency. It is the core part of the prosecution-reform scheme of the Moon government, under which impropriety-ridden prosecutors could be charged or placed as suspects by a new investigative agency operating outside the prosecution structure.

Over the past few decades, the prosecution has frequently faced public criticism for abusing its investigatory authority and monopoly on indictments with most people but taking a lukewarm approach toward its own malfeasance. Prosecutors have usually dismissed the speculations.

In the meantime, the Moon administration has faced a barrier in its prosecution reform, as new Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who was appointed to the post on Sept. 9, has been severely criticized by the right-wing Liberty Korea Party over allegations surrounding him and his family since he was a nominee status in early August.

The Cho Kuk scandal involves his family’s allegedly improper investment in private equity funds and his daughter’s dubious admission to a university in Seoul and medical-major graduate school in Busan.

Cho expressed his resolve to establish the independent investigation unit while he was serving as the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs for two years from 2017 to 2019.

Since at least early September, the prosecution has been conducting a de facto full-fledged investigation into the allegations surrounding the justice minister.

Public opinion is broadly split: Opponents of Cho are demanding he steps down from the post irrespective of the prosecution reform, while proponents claim that the prosecution is struggling to secure its vested rights by hampering the launch of the independent agency.

Though polls show more people oppose Cho’s appointment as minister than support it, a recent survey result showed that the majority of people still support the prosecution reform itself.

According to a poll by broadcaster KBS, which was released on Sept. 13, 57.7 percent of the 1,000 people responded that they supported Cho’s inaugural remarks, in which the new minister raised the necessity of systematically controlling the strong prosecution power via overhaul. As a counterpart, 37 percent of those surveyed said they were not in support of his arguments.
(Graphic by Kim Sun-young/The Korea Herald)

By region, those in Gwangju-Jeolla provinces topped the list with 75.9 percent in the advocate percentage for a reform, followed by Gyeonggi Province-Incheon at 60.9 percent, Jeju-Gangwon provinces at the same 60.9 percent, Seoul at 56.4 percent and Sejong-Daejeon-Chungcheong provinces at 55.2 percent.

A noteworthy point is that the number of proponents also outnumbered opponents in the home turf of the Liberty Korea Party -- 49.8 percent (pros) vs. 42.6 percent (cons) in Daegu-North Gyeongsang Province and 47.5 percent vs. 45.2 percent in Busan-Ulsan-South Gyeongsang Province.

This indicates that the majority of residents in any of the 17 major cities and provinces across the nation are still pinning hopes on the reform drive.

By generation, advocates took up more than 50 percent in all age groups between those in their 20s and 50s, respectively, while opponents exceeded advocates among those in their 60s or above, the KBS poll showed.

An online commenter said that revamping of the prosecution power should continue to be pushed forward at the National Assembly regardless of whoever the justice minister taking office. “And Cho or his family should be held accoutable for crimes, if any. The two are the diffrent propositions, and the fate of the reform bill could not be determined by a justice minister or prosecutor general.”

Apart from setting up the independent unit, the overhaul scheme includes scaling back the prosecution’s monopolistic authority of controlling the overall criminal probes and sharing a certain proportion of it with the police. On the other hand, a control authority held by the police is arousing concerns over possibly reckless probes into ordinary citizens.

Meanwhile, a poll by SBS and Kantar Korea, which was released on Sept. 14, the percentage of people, who predicted a successful prosecution reform under Minister Cho Kuk, stayed at 39.5 percent. In contrast, 55.8 percent, forecast a reform failure under the situation.

By Kim Yon-se (