The nation’s top prosecutor, Yoon Seok-youl, is being pushed over the cliff in his protracted feud with Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, who critics say has been abusing her power to block the prosecution’s investigation into sensitive cases involving figures close to President Moon Jae-in.
Taking issue with what she called “some serious misconduct” by the prosecutor general, Choo on Tuesday gave an order suspending Yoon from duty and began the process of taking disciplinary action against him.
The reasons cited by the justice minister seem not to be concrete, clear or pertinent enough to justify the unprecedented move. Choo refused to answer questions from reporters during a hastily arranged news conference to announce the measure in what could be seen as an indirect acknowledgment of the flimsy grounds for relieving the top prosecutor of his duties and disciplining him.
She said Yoon held an “improper” meeting with the owner of a local media outlet, interfered with prosecutorial probes to protect his associates and instructed the inspection of judges handling some controversial trials.
Many legal experts note that these and other allegations against Yoon seem to be exaggerated, distorted or out of context.
What does not make sense in particular is Choo’s claim that Yoon has damaged the public trust in the political neutrality of the prosecution. She may have had in mind growing speculation that Yoon might run in the next presidential election, slated for March in 2022.
Yoon came out on top in a presidential poll conducted earlier this month with a support rating of 24.7 percent. Trailing him were Rep. Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, and Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, whose support rates stood at 22.2 percent and 18.4 percent, respectively.
Yoon has never asked local pollsters to include his name in public surveys or expressed his intent to enter politics. Rather, Choo’s repeated attempts to block the prosecution’s investigations into cases involving figures close to Moon appear to have helped bolster Yoon’s popularity among voters.
During a parliamentary audit of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office last month, Yoon pledged to carry out his duties until the last day of his two-year term, which ends in July, adding that he would think about what he could do to serve the nation after completing his tenure. It does not make sense to see his remarks as damaging the political neutrality of the prosecution.
A day after Choo’s announcement, Rep. Lee instructed his party to consider pushing for a parliamentary probe into alleged misdeeds by the top prosecutor, saying he was especially “shocked” by the alleged inspection of judges by the prosecution. But the prosecution argues the allegation is inaccurate, saying the inspection actually consisted of collecting publicized information through portal sites.
On Wednesday night Yoon filed an injunction with the Seoul Administrative Court online, seeking to halt the execution of the justice minister’s order. His lawyer said the prosecutor general also plans to lodge a formal lawsuit soon to nullify the measure, which he earlier called unjust.
President Moon continues to keep his awkward silence on the clash between the justice minister and the prosecutor general. He was briefed on the measure against Yoon shortly before the announcement, but did not comment on it, according to the presidential office.
With his inappropriate silence prolonged, suspicion is mounting that he is getting the justice minister to push the top prosecutor out of his job to obstruct investigations that might be zeroing in on him or his associates.
Observers say Moon could be the subject of an investigation concerning presidential secretaries who have been implicated in a plot to help a friend of Moon’s fraudulently win a mayoral election in 2018. The probe into the unreasonably low assessment of the economic viability of a nuclear reactor could also reach the president, who is said to have shown interest in its early shutdown as a symbol of his policy to phase out nuclear power generation in the country.
Moon may finally opt to dismiss the prosecutor general, depending on the conclusion of a disciplinary committee the Justice Ministry is scheduled to form by next week.
Yoon’s removal from office would be a testament that the prosecutorial reform pushed by the Moon government is no less than an attempt to bend the legal institution to someone’s political will.
In this regard, it seems no exaggeration that Yoon, as prosecution sources put it, is determined to fight not just to save his post but to protect the rule of law and democracy in the country.