Justice minister’s prosecutor reshuffle prompts fears of retaliatory investigations into previous administration

Posted on : 2022-05-20 16:33 KST Modified on : 2022-05-20 16:33 KST
The sunsetting of prosecutors’ power to initiate investigations may spur the service to ramp up investigations
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon responds to a lawmaker’s question during a plenary session of the Special Committee on Budget and Accounts on May 19. (pool photo)
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon responds to a lawmaker’s question during a plenary session of the Special Committee on Budget and Accounts on May 19. (pool photo)

With Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon carrying out a personnel reshuffle and placing figures friendly to President Yoon Suk-yeol in high-ranking prosecutor posts only one day after being sworn in and the prosecution service’s Thursday raid of the office of former Trade Minister Paik Un-gyu, concerns are being raised that former Moon administration officials and the opposition party figures will become targets of investigations.

The justice team of Han and the new administration is now filled with former prosecution officials involved in the investigation into former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who had then been broken up and scattered around the country by former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae.

Prosecutor Song Gyeong-ho of Suwon High Prosecutors' Office was appointed as the head of the Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office while Yang Seok-jo, a human rights protection monitor at the Daejeon High Prosecutors’ Office, was appointed as the head of the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office, which has jurisdiction over the National Assembly.

Prosecutor Hong Seung-wook of the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office was appointed to the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office, which has jurisdiction over various cases related to former Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung. All of these prosecutors are from special and planning departments who have a direct “working relationship” with Yoon.

In particular, given that the prosecution service now has a closing date on its power to initiate investigations as a result of recent revisions to related laws, prosecutors throughout the country could choose to quickly dig into cases related to the former administration.

Currently, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is investigating the alleged lobbying of the Daejang neighborhood development project, the alleged planning scandal involving former presidential secretary Lee Kwang-cheol, and controversies surrounding the possible involvement of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in formulating the Democratic Party’s election pledges.

As Song, who oversaw cases related to Cho Kuk and his family during his time as the third deputy chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, was appointed to serve as chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, many say investigations into these cases could quickly accelerate.

It will also be important to keep an eye on what actions will be taken by the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office, in charge of investigating the case of Lee Jae-myung.

The Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office’s Public Investigation Department is also investigating allegations that Lee paid 2 billion won in cash and stocks as commission to an attorney defending him in a 2018 case related to allegations of violating the Public Official Election Act.

Moreover, the Seongnam branch under the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office has demanded a supplementary investigation into the alleged “Seongnam FC” matter, a controversy where Lee is accused of accepting as much as 10 billion won in donations from companies via Seongnam’s football club while serving as mayor of the city.

The Seoul Southern District Prosecutors' Office is also expected to resume its investigation regarding allegations of fraud by Lime Asset Management, a case in which ruling party figures are accused of being involved.

However, if such investigations do proceed, they are predicted to inevitably deal damage to the prosecution service’s political neutrality. In fact, choosing this kind of hard-line team consisting of former prosecutors close to the president is sending signals that “retaliatory” investigations may be soon to come.

“Since the prosecution’s command group is filled with [people close to] President Yoon, there is no way to avoid a dispute over neutrality even if the investigations are conducted fairly,” said a lawyer who formerly worked as a prosecutor.

“Han promised the prosecution service would stay politically neutral and fair, but he broke his promise in just one day through a personnel reshuffle that established a system in which Yoon Suk-yeol holds direct control,” the lawyer added.

By Son Hyun-soo, staff reporter

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