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Justice Ministry kicks off second disciplinary committee hearing against prosecutor general

Conflict between justice minister and chief prosecutor deepens with prolonged proceedings

Lee Wan-kyu (right), one of legal representatives for Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, answers reporters` questions Tuesday ahead of attending Justice Ministry`s 2nd disciplinary meeting held at the Gwacheon Government Complex. (Yonhap)
Lee Wan-kyu (right), one of legal representatives for Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, answers reporters` questions Tuesday ahead of attending Justice Ministry`s 2nd disciplinary meeting held at the Gwacheon Government Complex. (Yonhap)
The long-simmering conflict between Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae continued Tuesday with the second meeting of the ministry’s disciplinary committee.

Yoon once again was absent from the meeting, which started at around 10:30 a.m. at the Gwacheon Government Complex. The meeting was held to determine whether Yoon is subject to disciplinary action over allegations that Choo raised against him last month.

The chief prosecutor is accused of ethical and legal misconduct, including carrying out illegal surveillance of the judiciary and obstructing investigations. Yoon has denied all the allegations from the start.

The Tuesday hearing was attended by Yoon’s legal representatives and four members of the seven-member disciplinary committee. The committee consists of Justice Minister Choo, Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu, two prosecutors and three external legal professionals picked by the minister.

Choo picked Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Law School professor Chung Han-joong to head the committee on her behalf. As the petitioner, Choo was not allowed to attend.

“I will put efforts to maintain fairness at all times,” Chung said Tuesday in response to allegations that he is not fit to head the committee as he serves as a director of the Korea Government Legal Service under the Justice Ministry.

The Tuesday hearing was held after the disciplinary committee ended its first meeting last Thursday without reaching any conclusion.

Witnesses -- eight individuals who were seen as evenly divided in favor of Yoon and Cho -- were asked to testify Tuesday, but only participated in the hearing, hinting the tide could to be turning in favor of the chief prosecutor.

Shim Jae-cheol, chief of the Justice Ministry’s Internal Inspection Bureau, was dropped by the panel Tuesday morning after he recused himself from the committee as a member during the first hearing.

He was the only witness hand-picked by the committee, and the rest were picked by the Yoon’s defense. Shim was originally picked as one of the two prosecutors to serve on the committee but recused himself before the first hearing.

Two of Choo’s allies – Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office head Lee Sung-yoon and Gwangju-based prosecutor Jeong Jin-woong – did not show up to the hearing.

The disciplinary committee had not reached a conclusion as of press time, but it was reported at 5 p.m. that the committee had one witness left for questioning.

After questioning the witnesses, the committee will hear from Yoon’s attorneys then enter internal discussions for a conclusion. It was expected that the conclusion would be reached late Tuesday night unless decided to be adjourned for another date.

Yoon’s attorneys’ two attempts to recuse some committee members selected by the minister ended in failure, with the committee rejecting both motions. The chief prosecutor’s defense also asked the committee to find more members to fill the seven seats, but that request was also denied.

The unprecedented conflict between the heads of the prosecution and the Justice Ministry heightened Nov. 24 when Choo temporarily suspended Yoon from office until a ruling from the disciplinary committee.

Choo accused Yoon of six offenses, including illegal surveillance of judges and obstructing an inspection into senior prosecutor Han Dong-hoon, his close associate.

But after the Seoul Administrative Court granted an injunction lifting the suspension, Yoon returned to work, prompting Choo to take the case to a higher court for review.

Yoon’s defense has rebutted Choo’s allegations, saying they cannot be presumed true and that some of the actions in question were done for work purposes. His attorneys have argued that the justice minister is trying to penalize Yoon even though he is innocent.

“I do not know why (the ministry) is trying this hard to press disciplinary actions (on Yoon),” said Lee Wan-kyu, one of Yoon’s legal representatives, to reporters ahead of the hearing.

The chief prosecutor has not appeared for the two disciplinary committee hearings, to protest what he has called procedural flaws during the process of putting together the disciplinary committee and the ministry’s investigation into the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.

There are five possible levels of punishment, with dismissal the heaviest and a reprimand the lightest.

It was originally speculated within the legal sphere that the committee would eventually dismiss Yoon from his position with or without additional penalties, but some have also speculated that the committee might listen to public opinion and suspend Yoon from his position for just a few months.

If the committee decides to impose a penalty stronger than a salary reduction, the minister will have to seek the approval of President Moon Jae-in.

Yoon is expected to take legal action after the committee rules, such as filing an administrative suit to overturn any punishment.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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