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[Editorial] Judicial reform

When asked about judicial reform last week, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik was noncommittal. He apparently did not want to be drawn into a conflict over the thorny issue when he said, “There is no right answer to the question. I hope considerate debate (on the issue) will proceed in a way that will be of help in advancing the nation in the future.”

But the administration will have to get itself actively involved, with judicial reform taking shape now. It cannot afford to stand idly by, because judicial reform, when written into law, will have a far-reaching impact, among others, on administering criminal justice in the nation.

A plan by parliamentary committee on judicial reform has been altered by a subcommittee to address the concerns of civic groups and prosecutors ― the issues concerning shielding a new special agency for criminal investigations from undue outside influence and suspicions about unwarranted protection of political criminal suspects.

The original reform plan envisioned the special investigation agency placed under the control of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and empowered to launch criminal investigations into cases involving judges and prosecutors, but not lawmakers.

If so, advocacy groups complained, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office would hold sway over investigations to be conducted by the proposed agency. Moreover, there would be a potential conflict of interest if a prosecutor from the agency looked into a criminal case involving a prosecutor from a different department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.

Prosecutors also raised a legitimate question regarding the original reform plan: Are lawmakers trying to protect themselves from criminal investigations by excluding themselves from potential investigations by the agency?

All the key concerns of the activist groups and prosecutors were duly addressed when the subcommittee decided to recommend that the agency be placed under the Ministry of Justice as a separate and semiautonomous body and that it be empowered to conduct investigations into cases involving lawmakers as well. It also decided to refer the revised plan to the special parliamentary committee on reforming the judicial system when it is called into session on Tuesday.

Now that the main problems with the reform plan have been solved, will judicial reform proceed without a hitch? Not likely. Obstruction comes from the prosecutors’ office, which mistakenly believes that it must continue to be given the near sole mandate to prosecute criminal suspects.

In testifying before the parliamentary committee on judicial reform, the justice minister recently claimed that “there is nothing in the prosecutorial system that needs to be fixed.” Apparently, he was speaking for prosecutors who were up in arms against judicial reform.

But the prosecutors’ office is ignoring that the demand for judicial reform is based on long held public suspicions that it often launches investigations into politically sensitive cases, not on its own, but at the beck and call of the powers that be ― the president or his influential aides. Moreover, prosecutors, when subjected to criminal investigations, are given nothing but a slap on the wrist.

As a remedial measure, a law on independent counsel was enacted in 1999. Still, there is much to be desired, given that the National Assembly needs to go through a cumbersome legislative process before an independent counsel is appointed. No wonder the demand for a semiautonomous investigation agency has been growing.

The last thing the prosecutors’ office is likely to do voluntarily under any circumstances is to relinquish its vested interest and accept a proposal to share its sole right to prosecution with another agency. The parliamentary committee will do well to override opposition from prosecutors and go ahead with the process of writing the proposed reform into law. The checks and balances resulting from the judicial reform will undoubtedly make criminal investigations much more unbiased.