S. Korean prosecutors under Yoon poised to launch probes into opposition after local elections

Posted on : 2022-05-30 16:53 KST Modified on : 2022-05-30 16:53 KST
With prosecutors’ power to investigate certain areas sunsetting this fall, it appears likely that they’ll seize this opportunity to launch investigations into former administration officials and figures in the Democratic Party following the June 1 elections
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)

Now that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has positioned his allies in key offices of the prosecution service around the country, prosecutors are expected to move forward with investigations of figures in the Democratic Party and the former administration after the local elections on June 1.

The prosecutors have typically held off on investigations before elections to avoid political controversy and waited until things quiet down before ramping up speed. Considering that there are no nationwide elections until the general elections in April 2024, prosecutors have a two-year window to launch a series of simultaneous investigations at the beginning of Yoon’s presidency while reducing his political liability.

After beginning their duties on May 23, senior prosecutors of the so-called “Yoon Division,” many of whom are veterans of the former department of special investigations, were reportedly briefed on the status of investigations on major cases in their offices and reviewed ways to reinforce teams of investigators through upcoming personnel reassignments.

Song Gyeong-ho, who has been named director of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office, home to many of the service’s investigators, moved with particular speed. Not only the director but also the second, third and fourth deputy directors have been replaced at an office that’s running a number of investigations connected to the administration of Moon Jae-in.

Those investigations are exploring allegations of preferential treatment in a development project in the Daejang neighborhood of Seongnam; allegations of abuse of power by Lee Gwang-cheol, former secretary for civil affairs and justice at the Blue House; the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s involvement in framing the Democratic Party’s election pledges; and preferential loans to Wooridul Spine Hospital.

“The new director and deputy directors were briefed last week about the status of ongoing investigations at the office and also had a round of meals with the prosecutors involved. It looks like the investigations that have been piling up are going to get underway after the local elections,” a prosecutor at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said on Sunday.

The prosecutors are likely to determine the speed and intensity of their investigation into Lee Jae-myung, a former presidential candidate and current head of the Democratic Party’s election action committee, after seeing whether he wins a by-election for a National Assembly seat in the Gyeyang, Incheon, district.

The Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office, which Hong Seung-uk has been appointed to lead, is investigating allegations that a company fronted money to pay Lee Jae-myung’s legal fees. The Seongnam branch of the Suwon office has asked the Bundang Police Department (in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province) to carry out an additional investigation into allegations concerning donations to Seongnam FC during Lee’s tenure as mayor.

Revisions to the Prosecutors’ Office Act and the Criminal Procedure Act that reduce the prosecutors’ authority to initiate and carry out investigations will take effect in early September. Furthermore, the prosecution service will only retain its authority to investigate election crimes through December.

That makes it likely that Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon will soon push through additional personnel changes at the prosecution service. While the leaders of the “Yoon Division” are already in place, he still needs to position low-level investigators who can carry out its agenda.

More prosecutors who are allied with Yoon and Han are likely to be placed in departments that will retain the authority to carry out their own investigations, including the anti-corruption and violent crime divisions at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office and a joint team that investigates cases of financial and securities crimes at the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office.

“If another round of personnel assignments takes place in June, that should be seen as a push to move ahead on investigations of key cases before revisions to the Prosecutors’ Office Act and the Criminal Procedure Act take effect in September,” said a prosecutor in the greater Seoul area.

By Son Hyun-soo, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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