From carpool buddy to government office: How it pays to have worked with Yoon

Posted on : 2022-06-07 18:18 KST Modified on : 2022-06-07 18:18 KST
Yoon has been packing positions in his administration with former colleagues from the prosecution service
(Yonhap News)
(Yonhap News)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s efforts to take care of his close associates in the prosecution service are becoming more evident. Along with naming former prosecutors as key advisors in the presidential office, he has also appointed people he met during his time in the prosecution service to major positions in various government bodies, including the National Intelligence Service (NIS). As Yoon’s former associates take up their positions throughout the government, there are fears that his administration will come to be dominated by the rigid assumption that the prosecution service is capable of handling anything.

Various sources in the presidential office and in the People Power Party told the Hankyoreh on Sunday that people with backgrounds in the prosecution service will be appointed to major posts in a reshuffle of financial agencies scheduled for this week.

Some of the major contenders for director of the Financial Supervisory Service include former prosecutor Jung Yeon-soo, now an attorney with the Kim & Chang law firm, and Park Sun-cheol, former head of the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office.

Kang Soo-jin, another former prosecutor who now serves as a professor at the Korea University School of Law, has already been tapped to head the Fair Trade Commission. Kang was reportedly in a car pool with Yoon and with Vice Justice Minister Lee Noh-kong while they were working at the prosecutors’ branch office in Seongnam.

On Friday, Yoon also appointed people connected to himself and to First Lady Kim Keon-hee to the NIS and to the office of the prime minister. At the NIS, attorney Cho Sang-joon was selected to lead the service’s office of strategy and planning, which manages the budget. Cho formerly served as head of the criminal division at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.

Cho is regarded as a member of what has been dubbed the “Yoon Division.” He worked alongside Yoon in investigating Lone Star’s acquisition of Korea Exchange Bank for a fire-sale price, and he also defended the first lady on allegations of manipulating the stock of Deutsch Motors. Park Seung-keun, an attorney who was named chief of staff of Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, is another former prosecutor.

Former prosecutors are even more prominent among Yoon’s aides in the presidential office. Individuals with close ties to Yoon occupy four of eight important positions that report directly to his chief of staff (secretary for administrative affairs, secretary for general affairs, secretary for protocol, secretary for national agenda, secretary for civil service discipline, secretary for legal affairs, personal secretary, and secretary for state affairs monitoring).

Yun Jae-sun, secretary for administrative affairs; Kang Ui-gu, personal secretary to the president; Lee Si-won, secretary for civil service discipline; and Joo Jin-woo, secretary for legal affairs, all have personal and professional connections with Yoon.

Among the four, Yun served as head of operations and support at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. Yun and Kang’s relationship with the president goes back two decades, while Lee was reportedly in charge of lunch arrangements while he and Yoon Suk-yeol were working at the Daegu High Prosecutors’ Office.

Lee has been criticized for being the main prosecutor in a case in which a public servant in Seoul faced trumped-up espionage charges, while Yun Jae-sun didn’t withdraw his nomination even after being accused of sexual misconduct.

Significantly, personnel work in the Yoon administration is completely under the thumb of former prosecutors. Bok Doo-kyu, a personnel planning coordinator, was head of operations and support and secretary-general at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, while Lee Won-mo, secretary for personnel affairs, worked with Yoon Suk-yeol at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, who is regarded as one of Yoon’s closest aides, oversees the entire personnel vetting process via a team within the ministry that manages personnel information. Even officials refer to Han as the second most powerful person in the Yoon administration.

Lee Wan-kyu, who was a classmate of Yoon and Han’s at the Judicial Research and Training Institute, as well as being an alumnus of Yoon’s university, has been named the minister of government legislation. Lee served as legal counsel for Yoon, then prosecutor general, when he asked the courts to overturn disciplinary measures taken against him.

Vice Justice Minister Lee Noh-kong was also a colleague of Yoon Suk-yeol’s at the Seongnam prosecutors’ branch in 1997.

With associates from Yoon’s time in the prosecution service filling key positions in various ministries, the president is facing criticism for drawing upon an excessively narrow talent pool. Since these officials are accustomed to strictly obeying orders from their superiors, as is expected in the prosecution service, there are also concerns that their appointment will only reinforce Yoon’s “my way or the highway” approach to governance.

“Yoon was criticized for only using people who suited his taste when he was head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office and then prosecutor general. As president, he ought to have tried to appoint a variety of people, and not only those who were part of his clique in the prosecution service. There’s reason to fear that the mindset of a specific occupation will be uncritically reflected [in his administration],” a former senior prosecutor who now works as an attorney told the Hankyoreh.

“If organizations that are supposed to be independent and democratic in their operations are filled with former prosecutors, I’m worried they’ll move in lockstep with the president’s instructions,” said Han Sang-hie, a professor at Konkuk Law School.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Jeon Gwang-joon, staff reporter

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

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