Battles are underway on multiple fronts ahead of the general election this spring.
Of course, noisiest are the demonstrations at Gwanghwamun and those in Seocho-dong, Seoul, by anti- and pro-government groups alike, though they are still abstaining from violence.
Amazing yet saddening is the vehement contest between the two top authorities of law enforcement.
When President Moon Jae-in appointed Choo Mi-ae as justice minister, the new minister wasted little time before transferring senior aides to Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol to provincial offices earlier this month. People held their collective breath in expectation of a duel that promises no peaceful end. Past the Lunar New Year holiday, the spat goes on.
The big question mark in the political panorama of Seoul is whether the prosecutor general can keep his position until the April 15 vote and thereafter to indict and see the conviction of some present and former presidential aides, or if he will quit under pressure from the holders of power to leave the probes inconclusive. Whichever happens, observers say, Yoon would have raised his stature to be elevated to the short list of potential candidates for the 2022 presidential election. Unknown is on which side he would stand.
President Moon, who has a little more than two years left of his five-year term, will quickly fall into the gloom of a lame-duck period after the parliamentary elections, having few solid achievements to his credit either internally or externally. Poorest is his economic record, which includes the highest unemployment rate in decades among those in their 20s and 30s, and the shuttering of numerous small businesses due to the forced raise of the minimum wage and mandatory shortening of work hours.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea is not ready to back up its candidates with coherent social and economic platforms, content with having beaten the main opposition Liberty Korea Party recently in some legislative contests, including revisions to the election law and the formation of a powerful body to control investigation of corrupt and power-abusing senior officials.
Through collaboration with a few opposition groups, the ruling party introduced an unconventional parliamentary election system that advantages those minor parties in distributing proportional representation seats. Small parties earned this favor in exchange for their support in creating the investigation agency that aims to limit the role of the ordinary prosecution.
Led by political amateur Hwang Kyo-ahn, who was prime minister under former president Park Geun-hye, the Liberty Korea Party has failed to find a proper way to oppose the ruling bloc, switching between radical outdoor protests and strategically restrained approaches to legislation and 2020 budget passage. Under the present fluid situation calling for a regrouping of the opposition, members are restless about their political future, hardly assured of party nomination for the elections.
Yoon Seok-yeol is continuing his lonely battle against the power group based in the corridors of the Blue House, after indicting Cho Kuk, who served as justice minister for five weeks, his wife and a few other former presidential aides. Following Cho, Yoon’s probe is focused on alleged collusion by police and officials in Ulsan to start a corruption investigation of the incumbent mayor from the Liberty Korea Party in a successful attempt to get a close friend of President Moon elected in the local polls in 2018.
The current partisan contentions increasingly look pathetic but are not new, yet the confrontation between the justice minister and the prosecutor general over the latter’s determined pursuit of legal justice on the people of “live power” is wholly unprecedented in the annals of this republic. One wonders what happened to the cause of righteousness in a progressive government when its chief official committed to establishing justice openly challenges the proper process of condemning injustice.
The Law on the Prosecution Office stipulates, “The justice minister is the supreme supervisor of prosecution affairs, generally directing and supervising prosecutors and the justice minister can direct and supervise individual cases only through the prosecutor general.” Thus, the prosecutor general is solely responsible for all prosecution businesses, namely investigation and indictment of criminal cases, directing and supervising all officials in the Prosecution Office.
It is an established practice that the justice minister conducts the reassignment of prosecutors in consultation with the prosecutor general: A draft plan is first sent to the prosecutor general, who examines it for a day or two and returns it to the minister with his opinion attached. In her first reshuffle of senior prosecutors, Choo met with Yoon 30 minutes before announcing the new lineup.
All four deputies of Yoon in the Prosecutor General’s Office who had been directly involved in the probe into present and former presidential secretaries were reassigned to provincial offices. A follow-up reshuffle of the rank of prosecutors just below that replaced almost all those who had taken part in the investigation of Cho Kuk and related cases. Prosecutors privately commented that their boss’s “hands and feet are now tightly bound.”
The media extensively reported how the prosecution organization was restructured according to a picture drawn up by the new minister and who would now be drafted for the ongoing investigations into presidential aides. Lee Seong-yoon, the new head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, was portrayed as the representative of the justice minister to check the supposedly renegade prosecutor general.
Yoon has not instantly reacted to the reshuffles announced by the Justice Ministry, but he will continue his job with prosecutors from what could be termed the minor leagues. The first person indicted after the reshuffles was a presidential secretary who is suspected of having forged a certificate of internship service for Cho Kuk’s son to help him enter college while he was practicing law a couple of years ago.
Parliamentary elections are 2 1/2 months away. The two-year tenure of the prosecutor general, which cannot be extended, is to end in July 2021. President Moon will serve until early May, 2022 and Justice Minister Choo will probably remain in his Cabinet till the end. Crowds gathering on weekends at Seocho-dong near Yoon’s office are divided between those who support him and those who do not. Demonstrations of much bigger size at Gwanghwamun Square are generally in favor of Yoon.
An absolute consensus may be hard to obtain in these days of mixed public clamors, but we could still hear patriotic voices from people who want to see justice win over privileges and partisan egotism. Moon and Choo should understand that if they cooperate faithfully with Yoon in his investigation, their party can collect more votes in the upcoming elections.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.