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[Editorial] Ulterior motive

Moon’s drive to reform powerful agencies risks serving political power, not justice

For the first time in one and a half years, President Moon Jae-in this week presided over a meeting to discuss reforming the country’s prosecution, police and top intelligence agency.

He was flanked by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae when he walked into the conference room at Cheong Wa Dae, where other participants, including Interior and Safety Minister Chin Young and National Intelligence Service chief Park Jie-won, were waiting for his arrival.

The scene appeared to draw more attention from local media than Moon’s remarks at the meeting.

It sparked speculation that Moon had deliberately let Choo walk beside him to demonstrate his trust in the embattled justice minister under growing criticism for allegations that her son received unjust favors during his military service and she misused political funds when she was a lawmaker.

The presidential office later said that the simultaneous entrance of Moon and Choo into the conference room had not been premeditated, but few people seem to have taken the explanation at face value.

Since taking office in January, Choo has been at the forefront of the Moon government’s drive to reform the prosecutorial organization, which critics say has degraded into an attempt to blunt investigations into alleged corruptions and illicit campaign activities involving close aides to Moon.

The president told Monday’s meeting that his government’s work to overhaul the powerful institutions “is making irreversible progress,” urging participants to step up efforts to complete it. He stressed the importance of checks and balances among the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to ensure their systemic cooperation to better serve the interests of the people.

But the meeting, the second of its kind, has deepened concerns that the Moon government and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea with an overwhelming parliamentary majority will be pushing through their scheme to tailor the roles of the prosecution and the police to their political interests.

Opposition legislators and other critics say this bid will undermine the autonomy and political neutrality of the law enforcement agencies, contrary to the cause for the reform of powerful institutions.

The Moon government and the ruling party are moving to launch a new investigative agency tasked with probing corruptions involving high-ranking officials, judges and prosecutors and grant more investigative power to the police to reduce what they see as an excessive power of the prosecution.

But concerns are rising that the envisioned investigative organization, the top and other senior posts of which are likely to be filled with pro-Moon figures, would be used as a tool to strengthen oversight over the prosecution, the judiciary and the high echelons of the officialdom.

The police, which is set to take over more investigative authority from the prosecution, is seen to be more submissive to political power.

During a press briefing after the Cheong Wa Dae meeting, Justice Minister Choo said the overhauling of the prosecution’s structure and working systems would ensure prosecutors do not engage in direct investigation and instead work for public good to safeguard human rights as well as the validity of investigations.

Her remarks were seen by critics as a reaffirmation that the prosecution could no longer be placed or allowed to investigate corruption and other irregularities involving presidential aides, ruling party lawmakers and other influential pro-government figures.

Over the past months, Choo has replaced hardline prosecutors in what was criticized as a brazen bid to blunt or slow down investigations into sensitive issues.

If completed within Moon’s presidency that ends in May 2022, his government’s reform drive would result in taming law enforcement agencies to the will of political power rather than enabling them to better serve the interests of people by achieving justice.

What should also be noted is that the planned transfer of anti-espionage investigative authority from the NIS to the police could weaken the security posture of the nation.

The top intelligence agency needs to continue to be allowed to investigate cases involving North Korean agents and other pro-Pyongyang activities in breach of the security law. It will better serve the country’s interests to match the agency’s function of collecting anti-espionage intelligence with investigative power while putting a strict ban on its possible involvement in domestic politics.