Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol said Monday that “liberal democracy, the core value of our constitution, means a true democracy that rejects dictatorship and totalitarianism disguised as democracy.”
“Liberal democracy is realized through the rule of law,” he said in an address to newly appointed prosecutors, “Law must be applied and executed fairly to anyone.”
It is rare for a sitting prosecutor general to mention “dictatorship.” His words reflect a difficult reality facing the prosecution and also sound like roundabout criticism of the ruling party and the government under President Moon Jae-in.
In July last year when Moon appointed Yoon as prosecutor-general, Moon told him to “investigate the current power.”
But Moon changed his attitude as the prosecution investigated alleged irregularities surrounding the family of Cho Kuk, one of Moon’s closest aides, who eventually stepped down as justice minister amid street protests calling for his resignation over the scandal.
The prosecution also investigated allegations that the presidential office intervened in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election to get Song Cheol-ho, Moon’s 30-year friend, elected.
The ruling Democratic Party and its allies began to treat Yoon as a political enemy, putting pressure on him to resign.
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae who succeeded Cho disbanded teams of prosecutors who investigated Cho and other figures close to Moon, and relegated the prosecutors. She effectively isolated Yoon by appointing her loyalists to important posts.
The party revised the election system through a political deal with minor opposition parties and railroaded it through the National Assembly despite a fierce opposition from the main opposition party. As part of the deal, the party and the minor parties passed a bill to create an agency to investigate high-ranking public officials including judges and prosecutors despite criticisms that such an agency was unconstitutional. Some lawmakers who supported Cho publicly argued that Yoon must be the first to be investigated by the agency.
If the agency is launched, it will become effectively impossible for the prosecution to investigate those currently in power. There are concerns that the agency will likely inspect the prosecution and the court to the liking of the ruling party and those close to the president.
The party also reduced the investigation authority of the prosecution sharply and distributed its power to the new agency and the police.
Particularly after the party won the general election by a landslide, Choo and Lee Sung-yoon, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, are trying bluntly to make Yoon powerless.
Investigations into those in power and others close to them remain effectively suspended.
The prosecution indicted 13 people including Ulsan Mayor Song in late January in connection with the election intervention case, but no further news came out after the April 15 general election.
Little progress was made in investigations of high-profile cases involving two ruling party figures: Rep. Youn Mee-hyang and the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.
Youn, a former head of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, faces charges of accounting fraud and embezzling public donations to victims of wartime sex slavery. In the two months since the prosecution raided the council, there has been no news about related investigation.
Mayor Park apparently died by suicide a day after he was accused of sexually harassing his female secretary in his office. A civic group accused senior prosecutors of leaking the sexual harassment complaint against Park before his suicide. But little is heard about other investigations.
Probes are going at a snail’s pace for fraud charges against a private equity fund involving a former official who worked at the office of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs.
The ruling party and the Justice Ministry are installing layers of checks on the prosecution, such as launching a new agency and giving more power to the police. The party even argues the rank of prosecutor general should be downgraded.
As Yoon emphasized, the rationale of the prosecution is to guard the rule of law and ferret out irregularities by those who wield political power. If the prosecution dawdles to avoid displeasing those in power, it will fall together with them.