An old Chinese saying goes: Cook the dog after catching the hare. This may be applied to the current turmoil in the state prosecution organization involving Prosecutor-General Yoon Suk-youl and Chief Prosecutor Han Dong-hoon who now face open pressure from Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae to leave the service.
During the early days of the Moon Jae-in presidency, Yoon and Han were used as the warriors of law in the new administration’s purges on what were left over from the past conservative administrations of Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak. When the pair began taking on improprieties of some close aides to Moon, including Cho Kuk, they quickly lost favor of the new power.
Han, 47, had the roller-coaster ride between January and October this year, transferred from one of the most important posts in the central prosecution to a research office in the province. Strong resolve of making a comeback, possibly in a change of the ruling power, must be keeping him from resigning.
There are some 2,500 public prosecutors working at provincial and central offices across the country. Almost all of them changed seats in as many as four rounds of reshuffles since Minister Choo took office in January. On top of the major personnel shakeup, a dramatic confrontation goes on between the justice minister and the prosecutor-general. The former liberally uses her statutory right to oversee the latter, but outright dismissal is not warranted.
The prosecutor-general looks determined to serve out his two-year term lasting until July 2021 to complete prosecuting people in and near the power group. Concerns grow high in the general public as the Justice Ministry issues one statement after another to express dissatisfaction with the Prosecutor-General’s Office about the way it directs investigations while the PGO rebuts with claims of unjust interference.
Minister Choo’s goal at the moment is simple: Clear the prosecution organization of the mainstream force represented by Yoon and his close associates like Han. With a top score in the state judiciary examination and diplomas from Seoul National University and Columbia University, Han was the star of stars in the prosecution community, starting his career in the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.
He was the key player in a number of celebrated cases involving conglomerate owners and political heavyweights. Han had never left the golden route of the SCDP, the Seoul high prosecution, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) and the Blue House legal aide’s office except for a brief stay in Busan for mandatory rotation.
Even after the change of power in 2017, he led special investigation teams in charge of “clearing accumulated wrongdoings of the past.” He received media spotlights when he made press briefings on the indictments under arrest of former president Lee and former Supreme Court chief justice Yang Seung-tae. Han may be called a “political prosecutor” in view of the path he has taken in the past two decades.
The Cho Kuk scandal that surfaced not long after the inauguration of President Moon changed the lots of both Yoon and Han. Cho, the top leftist ideologue who championed reform in the nation’s criminal justice system, turned out to be the epitome of hypocrisy and personal greed with disclosures of an assortment of misdeeds by his family. As the Yoon-Han pair took up investigating Cho and others in the new power group, the president’s initial trust in Yoon gave way to misgivings about where his probes would head to.
Moon caused a great confusion in the order of legal affairs administration when he named Cho Kuk justice minister in order to check the prosecutor-general. As the media illustrated the improprieties surrounding the Cho family, public censures mounted and Cho, after a month, had to quit the job he had so coveted. Moon chose Choo Mi-ae, a former leader of the Democratic Party of Korea known for her combative nature, to succeed Cho.
Throughout this year, the judge-turned-lawmaker-turned justice minister pushed her own scheme of “prosecution reform” in a contest of ego with the prosecutor-general. The minister tried hard to render Yoon powerless by dismantling investigation functions under his direct control and removing his close aides from the PGO. The worst possible outcome of the double-headed system in our law enforcement system has become reality.
Minister Choo no longer tries to conceal her goal of ousting Yoon, Han and whoever obstructs the “prosecution reform” drive. She is telling them that they have had enough privileges as political prosecutors or “Seocho-dong aristocrats” in previous administrations and even under the current rule, and now is the time for the nation’s law enforcement system to cut all conventions from the past -- in a revolutionary manner
Han Dong-hoon’s 20-year service, for example, reveals great concentration of investigative mission in an individual prosecutor. As a junior prosecutor, he played a role in the detention of Choi Tae-won of the SK Group in 2003, the arrest of Hannara Party chairman Suh Chung-won in 2004, the arrest of Hyundai Motor chairman Chung Mong-koo in 2006 and the custody of National Tax Administration chief Chun Koon-pyo for bribery in 2007.
Under the Moon presidency, Han and his team served the arrest warrants for Lee Jae-yong of the Samsung Group for financial misdeeds and the detention of former finance minister Choi Kyung-hwan for bribery not to mention the arrests of Lee Myung-bak and Yang Seung-tae. Of all the prosecutors at different levels of prosecution, Han has truly had exceptionally heavy tasks.
From what is happening with Prosecutor-General Yoon and Chief Prosecutor Han, we find the mixture of personal sentiment with an alleged public cause. Choo ordered Han’s transfer from the Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, branch of the Legal Services Training Center to the Jincheon main office in South Chungcheong Province the day after the senior prosecutor publicly criticized the minister in a press interview.
People are witnessing ugly scenes in the Seocho-dong headquarters and other prosecutors’ offices while the drive to upend the prosecution organization is precariously underway. When a squad of investigators was searching Han Dong-hoon’s office, the prosecutor in charge physically attacked Han to snatch his smart phone.
Watching Minister Choo wield her statutory powers with unconcealed personal whims, people are inclined to see her so-called prosecution reform drive more as an effort to protect her colleagues in the new power than find the just direction in law enforcement.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times in the 1990s. -- Ed.