President Moon Jae-in said through his spokesman Friday that he “respects the court’s decision” to reinstate Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. Moon said he “offers an apology as a person with authority over personnel affairs for causing discomfort and confusion to people ultimately.”
Moon spoke as if he were a third party not directly involved in the Justice Ministry’s unreasonable disciplinary action against Yoon. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae recommended Yoon’s suspension from duty, and Moon authorized it.
That single line is all there is to Moon’s apology. After that, he criticized the prosecution. He said he expects the prosecution to examine whether it is exercising its powers fairly and with restraint. He said he wants the prosecution to be above suspicion of gathering personal information on judges. Yoon won an injunction against the ministry’s suspension over four counts of alleged misconduct, including surveillance of judges by the prosecution.
Moon effectively expressed his discontent with the court decision. His apology sounds hollow.
He said he apologizes as a person with authority over personnel affairs. It was not wrong to appoint Yoon as prosecutor general. Moon asked him to investigate allegations involving those in power, and Yoon performed his job faithfully.
Moon must reflect on why the court decided to suspend the disciplinary action and what caused this situation: his own attempt to expel Yoon and hush up allegations involving Cheong Wa Dae.
Cheong Wa Dae is suspected of having intervened systematically in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election to get a longtime friend of Moon’s elected. The presidential office is under suspicion that it forced its inspectors to pull the plug on their probes of alleged bribery involving Yoo Jae-soo, who is said to be so close to Moon as to call him “brother.” A former Cheong Wa Dae official is implicated in investment fund fraud. People suspect that other figures related to Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party may also have been involved. Prosecutors are probing allegations that the government manipulated findings about the economic feasibility of the Wolsong-1 reactor to comply unconditionally with Moon’s policy to phase out nuclear energy.
Through the justice minister’s personnel authority, the president disbanded the teams that were investigating the cases of the Ulsan election, Yoo and investment fund fraud. This implies the suspicions are serious. The root of the discomfort and confusion is not the conflict between Choo and Yoon, but the allegations related to Cheong Wa Dae.
Suspicion and anger will keep rising if Cheong Wa Dae keeps trying to obstruct investigations.
Choo took office in January, and ever since then she has undermined the rule of law and the neutrality of investigations. She assigned prosecutors loyal to her to important posts in the ministry and the prosecution. She took investigation command away from Yoon and sought disciplinary action against him for absurd reasons. But the court put the brakes on her drive to pressure Yoon to resign. Moon must accept her resignation and take steps to get the Justice Ministry back to normal.
After Moon’s apology, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea vowed to push to reform the prosecution further. Under the pretext of reform, some lawmakers argued the party should introduce legislation to ban the prosecution completely from investigating any cases and to allow it only the right of accusation.
A prominent lawmaker argued that Yoon should be impeached. If the party attempts to impeach the prosecutor general or strip the prosecution of its investigation rights, it will face strong backlash from a public increasingly disillusioned with its totalitarianism. Instead it should use common sense and avoid going to extremes.
Moon and the party will likely seek to preclude investigations of them through the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials, expected to be launched next month. The party revised the related law so that it can recommend a figure obedient to it as head of the office. The office will likely bury cases that involve them.
The harder they try to hide something, the more people want to know about it. Nothing can remain hidden forever. People hope they will act on common sense and reason.