Upon resigning from his office Monday, Supreme Prosecutor General Kim Jun-kyu cited the legal maxim, “pacta sunt servanda,” which means “promises (agreements) must be kept.” He was referring to the National Assembly’s passage of a revision to the Criminal Procedure Act overriding an agreement between the prosecution and the National Police Agency concerning the distribution of criminal investigation authority.
Kim’s resignation, about a month and a half before the expiration of his two-year tenure, was in protest against what he called the “breach” of the agreement between the two law enforcement organizations by the legislature, with the acquiescence of concerned government ministries as well as the police, the directly involved party.
The top prosecutor and NPA chief Cho Hyun-oh signed the agreement to allow police to initiate criminal investigation without asking for prosecutors’ prior directives. The detailed procedures were to be provided by a Justice Ministry edict. The written accord settled, if not completely, the perennial dispute between the prosecution and police over the sharing of the criminal investigation authority between the two organizations.
Some hard-line prosecutors, however, were dissatisfied with the change to their exclusive exercise of investigative rights and tendered resignations in protest. Members of the National Assembly Judiciary Committee found this move to be an act of arrogance. Drafting the revision bill, they upgraded the phrase “Justice Ministry edict” to “presidential decree” to reduce the prosecution’s influence in providing procedural details. The bill, with this modification, passed the full Assembly session almost unanimously.
At this surprise development, the prosecution chief must have been compelled to take a strong outward protest to ensure internal unity. Yet, Kim Jun-kyu’s resignation, even with his invocation of the common law principle, showed a lack of prudence as a jurist and indiscretion as a responsible civil servant. His departure would inevitably shake up the organization, although he turned down resignations submitted to him by some senior prosecutors.
Kim described the agreement with police as a “great concession” by the prosecution but police leaders were not satisfied either. They had wanted to be completely independent of prosecutors in conducting criminal investigations until the indictment process. Thus the agreement needed further corroboration and had room for interference by other superior government authorities, namely the presidential office and the National Assembly. Still, Kim Jun-kyu has behaved as if the pact between the two organizations were final and untouchable.
It is unfortunate that the controversy over criminal investigation rights reemerged at a time when the prosecution faces receding public trust, especially from the political community. A bipartisan committee’s extensive judiciary reform program met major resistance from the prosecution regarding the plan to abolish the Central Investigation Department at the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office. The National Assembly’s disfavor to the prosecution on the investigation rights issue is not unrelated to its obstruction of the CID closure.
Kim Jun-kyu’s resignation will be accepted when President Lee Myung-bak returns from Africa later this week. He will then be added to the list of supreme prosecutor generals who have failed to finish their given tenures. Out of 16 prosecution chiefs since the two-year tenure was introduced in 1988, six were unable to complete the term for personal or official reasons, indicating that the top echelon of the organization has remained fairly unstable under the impact of political changes.
The outgoing prosecution chief, known for his defiance of rigid office protocols, had drawn high expectations for prosecution reform when he took office in 2009. But he too became a hostage to tradition and authoritarian culture, acting like a warrior for organizational interests, just as most of his predecessors did.