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[News Focus] Will new investigative entity have authority to indict?

Korea poised to launch unit to investigate prosecutors, government officials

Citizens stage a rally in front of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in Seocho-dong, Seoul, in September 2019, demanding prosecution reform and the installment of an independent investigative body that would target corrupt prosecutors and senior government officials. (Yonhap)
Citizens stage a rally in front of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in Seocho-dong, Seoul, in September 2019, demanding prosecution reform and the installment of an independent investigative body that would target corrupt prosecutors and senior government officials. (Yonhap)

SEJONG -- A coming independent investigative unit in South Korea is drawing close attention as it is seen as a way to identify corrupt prosecutors and high-profile government officials.

Its launch was initiated by left-wing politicians from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea as part of their prosecutorial reform efforts. It is tentatively dubbed the Senior Civil Servant Crime Investigation Unit.

Though the main opposition People Power Party eventually agreed to the installation of the unit last year, having previously shown tough resistance, the right-wing party still opposes giving the unit the right to indict prosecutors or other officials suspected of crimes.

The opposition is demanding revisions to the law before launching the unit, arguing that it should have no indictment authority and should only be allowed to call on the prosecution to indict figures it has investigated.

But in that case, there would be little reason for the entity to exist: There have been many cases when the prosecution investigated corrupt prosecutors, but later chose not to indict them or demanded only meager penalties in court.

A large proportion of prosecutors, including past prosecutor-generals, are thought to have taken a lukewarm stance toward the unit’s establishment for years or decades -- and some prosecutors have expressed strong objections.

The issue was initially raised by the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998-2003) and came under the spotlight during the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-2008).

In 2003, then-President Roh, in coordination with then-Justice Minister Kang Kum-sil, held a debate with about 40 state prosecutors on TV. At that time, the Korean public witnessed prosecutors’ opposition to the reform plans. Many people who saw the debate said they believed some of the prosecutors lacked grounds for their position.

Polls have shown that about half of all Koreans support the independent probe unit, while about 30 percent stand opposed.

Opponents say the Moon Jae-in administration might use the entity as a political tool, targeting public officials who are backed by the main opposition party.

They also raise the possibility that by letting the special unit take over this role, Cheong Wa Dae could deprive the prosecution of the chance to investigate senior presidential aides or left-wing politicians-turned-ministers.

In this context, the question for the National Assembly is whether the unit can maintain its political neutrality.

At this stage, the rival parties have yet to reach a consensus on how to select the first chief of the Senior Civil Servant Crime Investigation Unit.

While the Democratic Party has expressed its willingness to launch the unit by the end of November, the People Power Party has insisted on sufficient parliamentary auditing of candidates for the top position first.

Last year, an editorial writer from a conservative newspaper appeared on a cable TV program and said that “a certain portion of conservative-minded people as well as liberals are in favor of prosecution reforms.”

He cited the Choi Soon-sil influence-peddling scandal during the previous Park Geun-hye administration, in which some prosecutors were allegedly involved, as the reason many conservative citizens also supported reforms.

A survey by Korea Research International found widespread approval across regions for the new investigation unit. Proponents outnumbered opponents even in Daegu and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province, the home turf of the main opposition.

Meanwhile, an analyst said public opinion could change anytime, adding that some former supporters of the entity are taking a wait-and-see position.

By Kim Yon-se (kys@heraldcorp.com)



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