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[Editorial] Safety nets of power

Draft decree authorizes justice minister to decide whether to open probes

The office of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs has reportedly worked out a draft decree of the revised Prosecutors’ Office Act and sent it to the Justice Ministry.

The National Assembly passed revisions to the act in January, as well as to the Criminal Procedure Act, limiting the authority of prosecutors and expanding that of the police. The revised laws and related decrees will take effect early next month.

The draft decree restricts prosecutors to cases involving public officials holding the top four ranks out of nine, if they stand accused of accepting bribes of 30 million won ($24,960) or more, or of smuggling narcotics.

Cases involving lower-ranking public officials, bribery allegations concerning less than 30 million won or the mere possession of narcotics will be investigated by the police.

If a new agency is launched, possibly next month, to investigate high-ranking public officials, prosecutors will only be responsible for investigating midlevel officials in the central government -- those holding exactly the fourth rank.

If the prosecution wants to investigate socially significant cases or ones that involve harm to many people, according to the draft decree, the prosecutor general must get prior approval from the justice minister. Effectively, the minister doubles as prosecutor general.

If the justice minister intervenes in investigations in this way, prosecutors will likely lose their political independence and become slaves of the powerful.

If the decree takes effect as drafted and Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae can decide whether to open an investigation, it will become practically impossible to probe allegations against anyone in the ruling camp. Even without the decree, Choo has already checked the prosecutor general by exercising the right to command him -- a right rarely used by justice ministers to avoid compromising the political neutrality of investigations.

Opposition parties condemned the draft decree as a trick to block the prosecution from investigating those in power during the remainder of the current presidency.

The ruling camp has tried to lay down multiple safety nets to protect its power. The first net is the creation of an agency exclusively to investigate high-ranking officials. The head of the agency will be appointed by the president. If opposition parties can be given a limited role in recommending the head of the agency, the ruling camp will be able to block any probe that might target its allies.

The second net is the justice minister’s authority to reshuffle personnel within the prosecutors’ office. Shortly after taking office, Choo broke up Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s teams that had investigated allegations against figures close to President Moon Jae-in.

The third net is the draft decree. If the justice minister had the right to call off high-profile investigations last year, the prosecution could not have delved into suspicions surrounding the family of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk.

Also, prosecutors might not have started investigations into certain other politically charged cases -- not even when the presidential office was suspected of having intervened in the Ulsan mayoral election to get Moon’s friend of 30 years elected. Not even when Yoo Jae-soo, a former Busan vice mayor who is said to address Moon as “elder brother,” was suspected of trying to cover up the presidential office’s internal probe of a bribery case against him.

The draft decree is out of sync with the reality of how criminal cases are investigated. The prosecution and police have different responsibilities when allegations are brought against public officials of different ranks. But few crimes can be divided clearly into ones involving only high-ranking officials or mid- or low-level officials. Most cases involve simultaneous accusations against superiors and subordinates.

Furthermore, depending on their rank, public officials implicated in criminal behavior may have to be investigated by three different organizations -- the new investigation agency, prosecution and the police. It is questionable whether this will be done fairly.

The ruling camp seeks to install a triple safety valve to prevent the prosecution from investigating those in power. Its members seem to be afraid of what will happen if the prosecution has the power to target them.