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[Kim Myong-sik] Yoon Seok-youl looms large in 2021 Korean politics

We are sadly sending off “Twenty-Twenty” and entering 2021 with very little hope for a better year. In the New Year, people will continue to live with the inconvenience of wearing face masks and in fear of inhaling the often lethal coronavirus, until community immunity has been established with universal vaccination, which still looks remote.

Enviously watching TV footage of vaccines being given in the United States, Europe and some countries in Asia, 50 million South Koreans, once proud of being better protected against the pandemic, are blaming their government for the delayed arrival of immunizations. The noise from the ruling group’s failed attempt to oust the prosecutor-general who was digging into their wrongdoings annoyed the nation throughout the year.

President Moon Jae-in could have waited it out due to public unease but he named Choo Mi-ae, known for her radical character, as justice minister to push “prosecution reform,” which actually meant the removal of Yoon Seok-youl. Day in and day out, the media filled space and airtime with developments in the Choo-Yoon showdown.

As the justice minister mounted her attack on the prosecutor-general with legally unsustainable suspension orders, Yoon’s political stature grew rapidly. In the year’s last opinion survey of likely candidates for the next president, the 60-year-old top law enforcement officer proved to be more popular than the ruling party’s leading presidential hopefuls.

Pollster RealMeter charted 23.9 percent for Yoon, compared to 18.2 percent for both Lee Nak-yeon and Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea. This was a pity for the opposition People Power Party, as all its known candidates earned middle and low single digit rates, with their figures put together still falling below Yoon’s.

Moon offered his apology last week to the people as the authority responsible for the appointment of both officials, only after his proxy Choo suffered two consecutive court defeats against Yoon. People showed their divided sympathy with the two by sending floral wreathes of encouragement in a roughly 10 to 1 ratio to the prosecutor-general’s office in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, and the minister’s office in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi.

The justice minister, accusing Yoon chiefly of abusing his power, chose a two-month suspension instead of an outright dismissal in the hope of a better chance for the Seoul Administrative Court to turn down Yoon’s request for an injunction. But the court raised Yoon’s hand again after another panel of judges did so on Choo’s earlier indefinite suspension order on the prosecutor-general.

How Korea’s highest prosecutor will use his remaining 200 days in office investigating and prosecuting the major scandals involving presidential aides, possibly connected to the president himself, will keep the political community in suspense. As a result of her ill-prepared offensive against Yoon, Choo not only pulled public trust in President Moon down but also brought him closer to criminal proceedings.

The Constitution provides criminal immunity for the president, but it is not impossible for the prosecution to subpoena the chief executive as witness to a criminal case and conduct a search and seizure of the presidential office with a court order. Such events can happen in the case of some presidential aides accused of offering illegal help for an old friend of Moon to get elected in the mayoral election in Ulsan in 2018. Thirteen people have already been indicted.

Another case in focus is the premature shutdown of the Wolseong No. 1 nuclear power plant on the southeastern coast allegedly under pressure of the Blue House to speed up denuclearization in energy supply, one of Moon’s key presidential campaign pledges. Three present and former senior officials of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy have been indicted for falsifying documents to justify instant closure of the facility which could be operated at least a decade longer after a recent renewal.

A witness has said that the president chastised former minister Baek Un-gyu by asking him “When will you stop its operation?” during a conference and that the minister scolded an objecting official, saying, “Will you offer your neck?” to save the plant. Indictments revealed that interference from the presidential office caused ministry officials to lie and fabricate papers in response to inquiries by the Bureau of Audit and Inspection.

Yoon’s hands are full with these and other cases involving “live power,” words that President Moon chose to mean the major targets of the new prosecutor-general when he expressed his full trust in him at the time of his appointment in July 2019. Whoever may be named to replace Choo, he or she cannot avoid daily clashes with Yoon over the latter’s probes into incumbent office holders.

Outside the realm of law enforcement, the political community will be closely watching every move of the prosecutor-general and the opposition circles toward a possible alliance. In this connection, the justice minister picked up Yoon’s remarks at an Assembly hearing that he “would consider ways to serve the people and society after retirement” as evidence of his political ambition and lack of integrity as public servant. The court dismissed this charge as groundless.

Few will be surprised if the opposition People Power Party sends Yoon an orchid to congratulate him when he retires on July 24, 2021. And an opposition coalition could invite him to join in nationwide rounds of nomination rallies with other candidates. He may accept the offer or seek other ways to serve the nation.

Yoon Seok-youl was brought out of obscurity as a prosecutor for the independent counsel investigating the Park (Geun-hye)-Choi (Soon-sil) scandal late in 2016. A year later he was chief of the Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office in the Moon Jae-in rule and directed prosecuting two former presidents, three former heads of state intelligence and other high officials of the past administration. Moon picked him up for the highest prosecution job in 2019, and at the end of 2020 the president signed his suspension order, which made him unable to work.

Opinion polls after the New Year holiday may produce even higher popularity figures for Yoon. We know his defiance against pressures of power under changing political milieu has raised public expectation in him as a non-partisan leader. If he enters politics, the glittering decorations he earned as a prosecutor could be both burden and asset.

He needs to know that while most voters in May 2022 will want politics in harmony and mutual respect, some would like to see justice done sternly on a bunch of people who put the nation into political and economic shambles.


Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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