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[Editorial] Protect rule of law

Court to hear Yoon’s lawsuit today as Choo pushes disciplinary plan

The court on Monday will hear a lawsuit filed by Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl to suspend the effect of Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s order excluding him from his duties.

Yoon faces a disciplinary committee hearing to be convened by the ministry on Dec. 2.

The court is expected to determine before Dec. 2 whether to suspend Choo’s order. If the court accepts Yoon’s request, he can work as prosecutor general pending judgment on the lawsuit filed by Yoon requesting the revocation of the suspension of his duties. If it dismisses Yoon’s request, Choo’s order will remain in place.

Choo’s order, announced Nov. 24, is far-fetched.

The ministry first took issue with Yoon’s handling of “special activity expenses” and the prosecution’s investigations into two fraudulent private equity funds.

But inspections found no irregularities that could incriminate him.

Then it found fault with an internal document of the prosecution, reported to Yoon, that contains information on judges. The ministry asserts it is evidence that Yoon instructed prosecutors to spy on judges illegally.

The nine-page document the prosecution disclosed has nothing unusual. The information was gathered through media reports and internet searches to be used as reference material.

By the logic of the ministry, all government agencies should be punished for collecting information on people from the internet.

The inspection procedures taken by the ministry are problematic.

Before launching an inspection, inspectors must notify the people they are inspecting of the issues they will look into.

But on Nov. 17, two prosecutors belonging to the inspector general’s office within the Justice Ministry abruptly visited the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and attempted to inspect Yoon in person. Yoon had not been informed in advance of the inspection. He sent them back without meeting them.

Choo cited Yoon’s refusal to meet with the inspectors as one of six grounds for her decision to suspend him from his duties. An inspection in writing was possible, but she did not attempt it.

On Nov. 25, the day after Choo suspended Yoon, inspectors belonging to the SPO’s inspection headquarters searched the department that produced the report on the judges. The headquarters is said to serve as a tool for Choo. They reportedly tried to find additional documents that could buttress the ministry’s argument that the prosecution snooped on judges illegally. But they labored in vain.

The following day, the ministry asked the SPO inspectors to investigate Yoon. It also announced the date of the disciplinary committee.

The ministry’s inspector general is said to have been opposed to the idea of investigating Yoon. Then one of his subordinates, a female inspector said to be receiving instructions directly from Choo, made an arbitrary decision to request an investigation into Yoon. This is an obvious neglect of procedure.

The ministry has an external inspection committee for the minister to consult. The 11-member panel discusses whether an inspection is proper, whether disciplinary action is justifiable, how strong it should be, and the like.

The ministry initially planned to convene the inspection committee Nov. 27 but postponed it to Dec. 10, citing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of that committee demanded that the ministry convene their meeting before the disciplinary committee meeting. The chair of the inspection committee, a ministry outsider, is said to have scheduled its meeting ex officio on Dec. 1.

It is common sense to review an inspection before taking disciplinary decision over it. But the ministry attempted to disregard procedure. It tried to bulldoze through its ultimate plan to get Yoon dismissed.

Early this month, the ministry revised a related regulation. In a clause stating that the minister must consult the inspection committee in these situations, it replaced “must” with “may.” The consultation turned from mandatory to optional. The ministry did not even give prior notice of the change to members of the committee. The revision appears to have targeted Yoon.

The ministry found no evidence pointing to any irregularities on Yoon’s part. Rather, it neglected procedure. Numerous prosecutors, including the heads of all six High Prosecutors’ Offices, demanded that Choo revoke her order. They criticized it for impairing the neutrality of the prosecution and endangering the rule of law.

The first chance to check her wild moves and protect the rule of law is in the court’s hands.
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