While all people had their souls tied with the daily outbreaks of COVID-19, a major reform in the law enforcement system was stealthily carried out in South Korea. Ordinary people are not well informed of how the changes will affect their lives while they are a matter of much concern for those who play with political power.
The primary theme is “prosecution reform,” designed to reduce the powers of prosecutors to mere writers of indictment from what was described as the almighty that can punish or spare whomever they want. From the beginning of this year, state prosecutors are only to “supervise” police instead of “controlling” them.
For the first time since the founding of the republic in 1948, Korea’s police force is now divided into three parts -- the National Police Headquarters, the State Investigation Agency and the Local Autonomous Police Commission. From 2024, police will take over counterintelligence investigations from the National Intelligence Service.
Last month, the National Assembly passed a controversial bill on the establishment of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) amid strong protest from opposition lawmakers. Thus, the systemic transformation of the nation’s law enforcement has been completed to carve out a weaker prosecution and a stronger police. Who would benefit most from this change, the people or the holders of power?
A ruling party Assembly member suggested that the rank of the chief of National Police be raised to minister from vice minister, revealing the intent of the current rulers in regard to using the police force for whatever purpose they have. The elevation would place the chief of police on an equal level with the prosecutor-general.
Throughout recent decades, the prosecution and the National Police have been engaged in an absurd contest of power which looked nothing but ugly in the eyes of the public. Senior police officials wanted to end the humiliation of remaining under direct control of prosecutors who, having the monopoly of indictment, could simply order police to start or stop their investigations of specific criminal cases.
The police had a good chance of realizing their dream when the government was under the liberal rule of presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in the late 1990s and 2000s. The leftist leaders had developed general antagonism towards the prosecution from their experiences of struggle against the establishment during the long conservative rule. Roh’s open debate with prosecutors loaded with virulent words shortly after his inauguration in 2003 was a famous episode.
But little progress was seen in the police’s efforts during the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, as they faced strong resistance from prosecutors against sharing any of their traditional power. Moon Jae-in, a protege of Roh, championed prosecution reform in his successful 2017 campaign. Prosecutors were collectively portrayed as protectors of the vested interests of the past regime.
It was unfortunate that Cho Kuk, who was given the task of reforming that particular area of administration, had too many blots of impropriety in his family affairs and personal conduct. President Moon’s appointment of Cho as his senior secretary for civil affairs and then as justice minister helped the prosecution reform drive quickly lose its luster.
Choo Mi-ae, known for her aggressive nature, took over as justice minister, but she was sacked after a yearlong battle of egos with Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl, the main target of her purge. The fact that the president had to pick four justice ministers in three years and eight months meant that his goal of transforming the nation’s law enforcement system has not actually been accomplished despite the completion of its facade.
With little more than a year left before leaving the Blue House, Moon has to make the new system work, while Yoon Seok-youl will keep his office for several more months, directing investigations of some close aides to the president. With the practically impossible task at hand, Moon must realize he got his priorities wrong.
Whatever is said of the motivation for the prosecution reform, we know that it is not unrelated with the tragedy of former president Roh, who committed suicide after spending a day in 2009 in the Seoul Prosecutors’ Office investigating a bribery case involving his family. Thus personal loyalty to his political patron seized the soul of the single-term president to push other things aside.
Still he had the luck of winning in the April 15 general election, which gave the ruling bloc a huge majority of 180 seats out of the total 300. The president has now accelerated the reform project by having the new legislature mass-produce statutes needed for the organizational changes in different agencies.
Complications are feared in criminal investigation as the new system allows the prosecution to conduct direct investigations in just six kinds of felony, with other crimes becoming the exclusive responsibilities of the National Police. Misdeeds committed by upper-level civil servants belong to the jurisdiction of the CIO. Intervention by the Blue House, or even by the court, will be needed in inter-agency contentions.
The best advice to President Moon at this moment is to give up any attempt to use the law enforcement apparatuses for himself and his colleagues. It is imperative that the prosecution organization, with 2,100 prosecutors helped by some 8,000 investigators, and the National Police, with 27,000 detectives among its force of 120,000 men and women officers, should compete with each other in upholding human rights in executing their respective missions.
“Fate” was the title of Moon’s autobiography published shortly before his first challenge for presidency. Fate took Moon, an amiable lawyer in Busan from a humble family, to politics and carried him to the present moment, when he has to think of his life after retirement. He said in an interview that he wanted to be totally forgotten by the people when he retires to a village in Yangsan in South Gyeongsang Province.
Most people would not want to keep him in their minds either as they go about living after a change of power. But it would make it easier for them to forget Moon after May 2022, should he help the reorganized law enforcement agencies do their jobs properly for the welfare of the people, who actually are not as interested in their political leader’s obsession with “reforms.”
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times in the 1990s. -- Ed.