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Partisan snarl grips confirmation hearing for Yoon’s justice minister pick

Justice Minister nominee Han Dong-hoon speaks at his confirmation hearing held Monday. (Yonhap)
Justice Minister nominee Han Dong-hoon speaks at his confirmation hearing held Monday. (Yonhap)

The confirmation hearing for President Yoon Suk-yeol’s arguably most contested Cabinet pick, Justice Minister nominee Han Dong-hoon, was gripped by partisan tensions.

During the hearing held on the eve of Yoon’s inauguration, Han argued that the Democratic Party of Korea-led prosecutorial reforms -- which entail expanding police powers while curtailing those of the prosecution -- would end up hurting the public while aiding criminals.

Han was also pressed to give his position on the prosecution’s past investigations into two Democratic Party figures: Cho Kuk, who is considered a close ally of President Moon Jae-in, and the late President Roh Moo-hyun, whose friendship with Moon is well known. 

When asked whether he intended to apologize on be half of the prosecution, Han replied that he lacked familiarity with Roh’s case as he was not involved. As for Cho’s, he said he did not think an apology was in order. 

Cho stepped down from his post as justice minister in 2019 after investigation by prosecutors revealed a wide range of irregularities by his family. Cho’s wife, younger brother and nephew have all been handed jail terms since.

Han’s nomination has been met with unified resistance from the other side of the political aisle since the announcement for the position, with the Democratic Party threatening to boycott hearings.

At the heart of controversy around Han lie Korea’s tradition of criminally investigating former presidents for corruption and abuse of power -- and fears that after leaving Cheong Wa Dae, Moon and his allies may go down the same road.

Democratic Party Rep. Youn Kun-young, who served as state affairs director for Moon presidential office, said in a public radio interview Monday that the incoming administration and the People Power Party “ought not to tackle the previous president (Moon).”

“All of Korea remembers how President Roh (Moo-hyun) passed,” he said. The late Democratic Party president had died in an apparent suicide in 2009 after prosecutors launched a probe into a high-profile bribery scandal linked to his family. 

“I don’t think Koreans would condone things unfolding that way again,” Youn said.

Last month, Rep. Yang Hyang-ja whistleblew to a newspaper that her Democratic Party colleagues were pushing to pass the revisions to criminal justice procedures because if prosecutors retained their investigative powers, “more than a dozen from Moon’s Cheong Wa Dae could end up in jail.”

Han has made it clear that he believes the administration of justice should spare no one.

At the hearing he told lawmakers that the laws restricting the prosecution’s abilities to investigate would allow politicians and high-ranking officials to “hide behind immunity.” “They do not serve the interest of the people,” he said.

As a prosecutor, Han had led investigations into top-level corruption cases involving political and business elites, including ousted former President Park Geun-hye.

The major controversies facing Han surround the extracurricular activities of his daughter, who goes to a prep school in Incheon. According to a news report that broke over the weekend, a ghostwriting service based overseas claimed it penned an essay for the high school junior.

Ahead of Monday’s hearing, the party’s interim co-chair Park Ji-hyun called on Yoon to withdraw his nomination of Han over the academic dishonesty claims raised against his daughter. The other co-chair Yoon Ho-jung said the justice minister nominee’s daughter’s case warranted a full-scale police investigation.

But the Democratic Party’s bid to defeat Han’s nomination could easily be stymied by the precedents set by the Moon administration. The Democratic Party, which has had majority control of the National Assembly since June 2020, has let 34 of Moon’s nominees win parliamentary confirmation without opposition support -- far more than any other administration in history.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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