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Court upholds suspension of ex-top prosecutor Yoon

Justice Ministry’s disciplinary action called legitimate, but insufficient

Yoon Seok-youl, a leading presidential candidate for the main opposition People Power Party, meets party members in Gyeonggi Province on Oct. 14, 2021. (Yonhap)
Yoon Seok-youl, a leading presidential candidate for the main opposition People Power Party, meets party members in Gyeonggi Province on Oct. 14, 2021. (Yonhap)
A South Korean court on Thursday upheld the Justice Ministry’s disciplinary action against former top prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl during his term and declared that the two-month suspension was a light penalty given his offenses.

The Seoul Administrative Court rejected the suit filed by Yoon, who stepped down from the position in March, against then-Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, affirming the legitimacy of his two-month suspension from duty as prosecutor general.

Thursday’s ruling came around 10 months after Yoon filed an administrative lawsuit in hopes of nullifying his suspension.

In mid-December, the Justice Ministry’s disciplinary committee accused Yoon of misconduct and issued the two-month suspension as a penalty. But Yoon immediately took legal action to challenge the decision.

The unprecedented disciplinary action against an incumbent top prosecutor was taken by then-Justice Minister Choo and endorsed by President Moon Jae-in.

The ministry’s disciplinary committee on Dec. 16 accepted Choo’s request, saying four of the six charges levied against Yoon were well founded.

The four charges included failure to maintain political neutrality as the top prosecutor, and ordering others to draw up documents containing judges’ personal information with the intent to conduct unauthorized surveillance.

Yoon was also accused by the disciplinary committee of obstructing an investigation into a case related to local cable television network Channel A, which was embroiled in a collusion scandal involving the prosecution.

But the following day, Yoon filed an injunction with the court seeking a stay of execution. Yoon also simultaneously but separately filed an administrative lawsuit challenging the two-month suspension.

On Thursday, the Seoul Administrative Court concurred with the Justice Ministry on three of the four charges the ministry had leveled against Yoon, but disagreed that he had failed to maintain political neutrality.

In a written statement, the court elucidated that Yoon’s offenses constituted “grave misconduct that undermines legality and fairness of prosecutorial affairs.”

While upholding the validity of the two-month suspension, the court found that the disciplinary action taken against Yoon was insufficient.

The court underscored that the Justice Ministry had imposed disciplinary measures on Yoon at a level below the minimum statutory disciplinary punishment. Yoon’s wrongdoings were more than enough reason to dismiss him from office, it continued.

The court, however, dismissed the Justice Ministry’s claim that statements from Yoon had undermined his political neutrality.

According to the court, Yoon did not unequivocally state any intentions or plans to engage in political activities during his tenure.

The ruling appears to be symbolic since Yoon has already resigned from the post, but it came out around five months before the presidential elections slated for March.

Yoon’s legal team on Thursday reportedly expressed its intention to lodge an appeal against the ruling.

Thursday’s ruling marked a turnaround from the court’s previous decision by refusing to renew the injunction on the Justice Ministry’s order to suspend Yoon.

In late December, Yoon returned to his post after the Seoul Administrative Court granted an injunction amid his growing feud with Choo over prosecution reforms and politically sensitive investigations.

The court also stated that the two-month suspension approved by President Moon should cease to have effect until 30 days after the ruling on the lawsuit brought by Yoon.

By Ji Da-gyum (