Mired in controversy, Yoon’s pick for police investigations director quits before taking office

Posted on : 2023-02-27 16:52 KST Modified on : 2023-02-27 16:52 KST
An already controversial appointment of a former prosecutor to a position of power within the police was ultimately nixed over revelations about abusive bullying of a classmate by the appointee’s son
The National Office of Investigation headquarters of the National Police Agency in Seoul’s Seodaemun District (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)
The National Office of Investigation headquarters of the National Police Agency in Seoul’s Seodaemun District (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)

In an unprecedented development, the South Korean administration withdrew its nomination of a former prosecutor for the position of general director of police investigations just a day after the fact due to a popular outcry over a history of abusive behavior at school by the nominee’s son.

The nomination in question had already raised concerns that the prosecutors would be gaining control over the police.

On Saturday, attorney Chung Sun-sin stepped down as director of the Korea National Police Agency (KNPA) National Office of Investigation, a mere day after he was appointed.

Chung had already been a source of controversy since the first reports on the applicants emerged on Feb. 5. Of the three applicants, he was the only one with a history as a prosecutor.

The other two applicants — a former Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency investigation division director and a former Hwacheon Police Station chief — had also caused disappointment among police due to their lower “rank” compared with Chung. The reports raised alarm among the police, who saw them as signaling that a former prosecutor would be the director of police investigations for the first time in Korea’s history.

The role of National Office of Investigation director is an open position with a two-year term. Individuals with a career history of 10 years or more as a legal professional are eligible to apply. The position was established in 2021 as part of an effort to redistribute the police’s investigation powers, which had been increased amid adjustments to the respective investigative roles of the prosecutors and police. Observers suggested that if a former prosecutor were to take over that position, it would basically nullify the adjustment in investigation powers that had taken place.

“There were even conspiracy theories about how, upon taking over as National Office of Investigation director, a former prosecutor would deliberately ruin police investigations in order to drum up popular support for turning things back to how they were before the investigation authority adjustment,” one police senior superintendent told the Hankyoreh on Sunday.

Chung’s relatively close personal relationship with President Yoon Suk-yeol was another source of controversy. Some observers questioned whether the police would be able to conduct investigations independently from prosecutors — or from politicians.

Chung was deputy spokesperson for the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in 2011 while Yoon was the second department director in its central investigation division, and he worked as human rights supervisor in 2018 while Yoon was director of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.

Despite the concerns voiced by police and others, KNPA Commissioner Yoon Hee-keun recommended Chung as National Office of Investigation director, and Yoon appointed him on Friday. Chung was scheduled to begin his term on Sunday. But on Saturday, Yoon withdrew the appointment among widespread controversy over a history of school bullying by Chung’s son.

In 2018, Chung’s son received a transfer order from the autonomous private high school he was attending in Gangwon Province due to ongoing verbally abusive behavior. The controversy over Chung’s appointment arose amid revelations that he had requested a rehearing and initiated legal action to overturn the school’s decision to have his son transferred.

In its investigation, the Hankyoreh found that Chung’s son engaged in ongoing verbally abusive behavior against a fellow student between 2017 — when they were both in their first year of high school — and early 2018.

In 2018, Chung filed an administrative suit on behalf of his underage son to request a reversal of the transfer decision. An examination of the resulting ruling on Sunday showed that the son had made numerous abusive remarks to his high school classmate, calling them a “commie” and telling them, “You smell because you’re a pig” and “Get lost. You’re disgusting.”

The classmate in question was ultimately hospitalized with diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder. They also attempted suicide.

While investigating the classmate’s reports of abusive behavior, the school identified an additional victim, and in March 2018 it made the decision to transfer Chung’s son.

In response, Chung requested another hearing from the provincial office of education’s student disciplinary coordination committee, which made the decision to reverse the transfer two months later.

“I take classes with him,” the victim of bullying by Chung’s son said afterward. “He goes around saying how he hired an attorney and got let off the hook, and the others hear that and laugh. He really is a monster.”

A teacher at the school observed, “Parents are really afraid of any responsibility [for abusive behavior] being acknowledged.”

In June of that year, the victim filed their own rehearing request to have the transfer’s reversal overturned, and Chung’s son was once again given a transfer decision. Chung responded by filing an administrative lawsuit to demand a court’s reversal of the disciplinary action. He also applied for a suspension of enforcement of that action until a decision was reached.

But in three successive trials, the courts sided with the victim. Chung’s son was finally transferred to a different high school in February 2019, nearly a year after the initial transfer decision. In May 2020, he was granted regular admission to an elite university.

After his desperate legal battle to prevent his son from being transferred away from a high school for bullying, Chung ended up stepping down before even taking office as National Office of Investigation director. But the public’s anger shows no signs of fading quickly.

The fact that his son continued attending the school for nearly a year after the first transfer decision — as his father used every means available to overturn it, up to and including taking the case before the Supreme Court — represented an additional form of victimization to the student he was bullying.

Chung’s departure suggests that the scrutiny of future choices for National Office of Investigation directors will be much more rigorous.

On Saturday afternoon, the National Police Agency called the withdrawal one day after appointment “a first,” adding, “We will need to examine the relevant laws and hear opinions from the relevant offices.”

It added that it would be “working as quickly as possible” to recommend a successor.

Observers among the police said that based on an internal legal review, the decision may be to solicit new applications or to make an internal selection. Kim Byeong-woo, the police agency’s investigation and planning coordination officer, will be serving as acting director of the National Office of Investigation until the selection process is complete.

By Chai Yoon-tae, staff reporter; Seo Hye-mi, staff reporter

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

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