What is prosecution reform? They say it is to ensure that our prosecutors respect human rights in every stage of a criminal investigation and that they maintain independence from outside interference while their power is restricted to establishing justice.
Regrettably, we witnessed over the past three years no evidence of the above being realized. Instead, signs are that politics creeps into the process of law enforcement and, worst of all, favoritism rules the posting of prosecutors. Adding a dramatic factor, the justice minister and the prosecutor general are engaged in a power contest with the Blue House and the annoyed people cheering them separately.
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, who is committed to wrapping up the crucial task, is busy these days defending against accusations from the opposition that she used her influence to help her son during his military service. President Moon Jae-in may by now find that Choo, 61, was after all not the best choice to succeed Cho Kuk, who resigned after a little more than a month in office under a storm of public censure.
Cho was one of the advocates of prosecution reform – in essence to quash the law enforcement organization’s excessive power as the loyal guardian of government rather than as the protector of the people – but he had to quit as he lost his own credibility after the exposure of personal misbehavior and scandals involving his family.
Legend has it that Moon Jae-in vowed to reform the nation’s prosecution to the soul of former president Roh Moo-hyun, whom he served as his chief of staff. Roh leapt to his death from a rock near his country home in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, on the morning of May 23, 2009, a few days after he was interrogated at the Seoul prosecution in connection with bribery charges filed against his wife.
In his autobiography, “The Fate,” published before his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2012, Moon said of former president Roh: “He said in his suicide note, ‘This is my fate...’ I thought, ‘You are now freed from your fate, but you took me to a new fate, which I will not be able to leave in this life.”
Prosecutors questioned Roh on what he knew about the delivery of cash from one of his businessmen supporters to his wife. And there was no claim from any side of inappropriate treatment of the former president. Still, the death of Roh Moo-hyun, truly a tragedy in the republic’s history, was strong enough a call for his supporters, including his former chief secretary Moon, to make a vow to get even.
The first chance came in 2012 when Moon was nominated to compete against Park Geun-hye, but he lost to her. In the 2017 election following the dismissal of Park through impeachment, Moon offered prosecution reform as one of his campaign pledges along with a set of progressive policies, including a phase-out of nuclear energy and an unconventional economic scheme termed income-led growth.
Taking advantage of the people’s anger over Park’s known misdeeds in company with her confidante Choi Sun-sil, Moon won the 2017 election. He has taken two former presidents to court where they were given maximum prison sentences that cooperative executors of law could provide for cases other than treason. Yet, Moon soon found the agenda of reforming the prosecution a most elusive task.
He retrieved prosecutor Yoon Suk-youl from a provincial post where he was banished by former power holders when he defied their wishes in prosecuting law-breaking officials and posted him in the important Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office. Later, Moon installed Yoon as the prosecutor general, telling him to be merciless on “the live power” as he would on “the dead power.”
Yoon followed the president’s rather punctilious order too well, indicting the short-lived justice minister Cho, his wife and three members of his extended family. Yoon’s public stature grew as some prominent figures in the new power group were prosecuted one after the other. He was even listed as one of prospective presidential candidates in opinion polls.
Choo was named justice minister to check Yoon as his immediate boss. Unlike in the United States where there is no justice minister separate from attorney general or in Canada where one official holds the dual job of justice minister and attorney general, Korea, like Japan, has justice minister in the Cabinet and the prosecutor general as the highest law enforcement officer controlling the prosecution organization.
Since Choo took office in January, the Korean public watched the two top legal affairs officials contest openly with their respective powers over reshuffling prosecutors and restructuring the organization. The minister with the backing of the president and statutory authority emerged the winner each time she confronted the prosecutor general, but public support and sympathy grew with Yoon.
These past few weeks, stories of Choo’s son extending his leave of absence in an unusual manner took a lot of newspaper space and TV airtime. The main opposition party, now renamed People Power Party (PPP), provided new claims by people who met the minister’s son while he was serving with the 2nd US Infantry Division as a member of a KATUSA (Korean augmentation to the US Army) unit.
Choo has insisted that her son violated no military rules in having a total of 58 days ofleave during his 21-month active duty. But accusers pointed out that Choo’s son had twice as many furlough days as the average soldier, and the then-ruling party chief’s parliamentary aide in 2017 called her son’s unit in Uijeongbu to request an extension of the soldier’s leave on the grounds of a knee operation.
The PPP filed charges against the justice minister for obstruction of official business and abuse of official power. Complaints are heard from inside the ruling group of the damage possibly being done to the image of the Moon presidency as well as the cause of prosecution reform now championed by the justice minister.
Many able prosecutors have left the organization where loyalists are promoted and dissenters are demoted. Special investigation divisions under the prosecutor general have been abolished ahead of the launching of a special agency responsible for probing wrongdoings by judges, prosecutors and other high-ranking officials.
All these years, we have heard prosecution reform a lot, What a short-sighted reform will it be if it ends up cutting back the power of the prosecutor general?.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.