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Yoon’s Justice Ministry poised to get power to vet presidential appointments

President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) shakes hands with Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon during the appointment ceremony held May 26. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) shakes hands with Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon during the appointment ceremony held May 26. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk-yeol is pushing to put the Ministry of Justice in charge of vetting and screening candidates for roles at the Cabinet, courts and other state agencies -- a job undertaken by the now-abolished post of senior presidential secretary for civil affairs in previous administrations.

The immediate beneficiary of the ministry’s new function is Han Dong-hoon, the president’s longtime colleague at the prosecution and a close associate who was appointed the Justice Minister in the face of strong protest from the opposition.

Yoon told reporters Friday that he does not believe the president’s secretaries should have the power to “vet or dig after potential appointees.”

“This is the way it’s done in the US,” he said. “The presidential office does not get involved, and appointments are vetted by a separate body.”

This is not entirely true. The Office of Presidential Personnel and other offices within the White House typically have a role in the review and vetting process of political appointees, according to its website.

As the rules for enabling this change are not law, they do not require the National Assembly’s approval.

The Justice Ministry’s advance notice of establishing a body for the appointee vetting process have already been deliberated upon and approved at a Ministry of Government Legislation and vice ministers’ meeting last week. A final round of deliberation at the Cabinet meeting await the rules before they can be officially adopted.

Han argues that having the office responsible for vetting under the ministry -- which he says “so far had remained the presidential secretary’s secretive prerogative powers” -- will mean greater transparency.

The president’s secretaries had “not been as open or approachable to the press” nor “obliged to be forthcoming about the vetting process,” he told reporters Monday. “The presidential secretary’s office is not subject to parliamentary questionings or audits, but the Justice Ministry is.”

Former President Moon Jae-in’s senior presidential secretaries had refused to appear at questionings, saying that was the “custom and principle.”

Han said the process of selecting and vetting people for positions in the administration “should not take place out of the public eye,” and instead be “put under surveillance” by the press, the National Assembly and the Board of Audit and Inspection.

As the Justice Ministry readies to assume vetting powers, the opposition is crying foul.

The Democratic Party of Korea’s election polling committee said on May 24 that Han was “at once the justice minister, presidential secretary for civil affairs and attorney general.”

“He would have the privilege of a senior presidential secretary on top of the range of other powers that can be exercised by the justice minister, like deciding who will hold top prosecutorial posts. He would not have equal footing as other members of the Cabinet,” the committee said.

Plus, having been a high-level prosecutor until recently, Han would retain connections to the prosecution, the committee pointed out.

The opposition party’s Floor Leader Rep. Park Hong-keun said Han was “being crowned as the administration’s de facto second in command,” and that Yoon’s Justice Ministry was “transforming into a Big Brother-like institution.”

“This is a prelude to illicit meddling in state affairs,” he said, alluding to the scandal involving the ruling conservative party’s previous President Park Geun-hye and her confidant that led to her impeachment in 2017.

In response to the criticisms, the Justice Ministry said a “strict ‘Chinese wall’ mechanism will be put in place between ministries so that confidential information will not be revealed to any unauthorized parties.”

The head of the body responsible for vetting personnel “will not be a member of the prosecution,” the ministry added.

By Kim Arin (