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Prosecution in turmoil after chief suspended

Supreme Prosecutors’ Office raided over alleged illegal surveillance of judges

A banner supporting Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl is standing at the entrance of the Supreme Prosecutors' Office in Seocho-dong, Seoul, Wednesday. (Yonhap)
A banner supporting Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl is standing at the entrance of the Supreme Prosecutors' Office in Seocho-dong, Seoul, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

A day after Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl was suspended from duty, turmoil continued at the nation’s prosecution, including a raid of Yoon’s office Wednesday by Justice Ministry-backed prosecutors over alleged illegal surveillance of judges.

Armed with a search warrant, prosecutors from the Justice Ministry’s internal investigation team raided a unit of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in charge of data collection. The surveillance of judges, using the unit, is one of six allegations that Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae leveled against Yoon when she announced his suspension Tuesday. Yoon was home when the raid took place, reportedly preparing for legal action to keep his job. He denies any wrongdoing. Deputy Prosecutor General Cho Nam-kwan now serves as the acting prosecutor general.

Choo’s high-stakes offensive against the chief prosecutor will hinge on the decision of a disciplinary committee, expected to convene next week. Yoon’s suspension is temporary, pending the committee’s decision. 

The committee will consist of seven members, including the justice minister and deputy minister, two prosecutors and external legal professionals. The justice minister has the authority to select five of the seven people. Any disciplinary action requires a majority vote.

There are five levels of punishment, with dismissal the heaviest and a reprimand the lightest. If the committee decides to impose any penalty stronger than a salary reduction, the minister will have to seek the approval of President Moon Jae-in.

Choo and Yoon have been at odds over a raft of issues, most importantly how to reform the prosecution. Yoon, a lifetime prosecutor, was appointed by the president in July 2019 to lead the internal reform of the prosecution, to stop it from meddling in politics and ensure that it uses its great authority to serve the public.

Choo, a former judge and ruling Democratic Party of Korea chief, has complained about Yoon’s decisions, saying he protected his close associates and other prosecutors rather than seeking the truth in cases involving them. 

After the minister notified him of his suspension, Yoon said, “Reflecting on my past deeds, I have done nothing to be ashamed of as prosecutor general and have worked hard to protect the political neutrality of the prosecution.”

He plans to file an administrative claim with the Seoul Administrative Court to seek to overturn the suspension.  

Yoon faces accusations that he received reports from the SPO‘s data collecting unit on the personal details and political tendencies of the judges, including their hobbies, family members, rulings they made in key political trials and whether they were part of a progressive judges’ group. He is also accused of sending the information obtained to the anti-corruption department at the prosecutors’ office.

Other allegations include obstructing an inspection into senior prosecutor Han Dong-hoon, his close associate, in April. Han was accused of colluding with a former journalist to obtain incriminating information on liberal pundit Rhyu Si-min.

In May, Yoon transferred a case involving former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook as prosecutors responsible for presenting the case were about to face an internal investigation over allegations they coerced prisoners to give false testimony.

The justice minister said Yoon abused his power by halting the inspections.

The minister argued that Yoon also obstructed an investigation into his own case by refusing to undergo face-to-face questioning by inspectors from the ministry, and failed to live up to the political neutrality required of the prosecution.

Choo also accused him of holding an “improper meeting” two years ago with Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of JoongAng Holdings, which operates leading newspaper firm Joongang Ilbo and broadcaster JTBC.

“Yoon, who served as the chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office back then, met with JTBC’s de facto owner, Chairman Hong, in November 2018 for an inappropriate exchange that could damage fairness,” Choo said.

The meeting took place when the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office was set to seek sentences for conservative political commentator Byun Hee-jae over defamation charges against JTBC officials.

By Park Han-na (