Prosecutor’s plot to target politicians raises questions of involvement by superiors, including Yoon

Posted on : 2024-02-02 16:58 KST Modified on : 2024-02-02 16:58 KST
During the time that a high-ranking prosecutor conspired to file criminal complaints against political figures, Yoon was serving as head of the prosecution service and his close ally Han Dong-hoon was exchanging messages with the prosecutor in question
Son Jun-sung heads into the Seoul Central District Court on Jan. 31 for sentencing in his trial on charges of manufacturing criminal complaints aimed at politicians. (Yonhap)
Son Jun-sung heads into the Seoul Central District Court on Jan. 31 for sentencing in his trial on charges of manufacturing criminal complaints aimed at politicians. (Yonhap)

After a Korean court ruled on Wednesday that the prosecution service made an organized effort to draw up criminal complaints and provide them to opposition politicians shortly before the 2020 general election for the benefit of people including the prosecutor general and his wife, there’s more pressure to investigate the possible involvement of higher-ups in the prosecution service who were the potential beneficiaries of that scheme. Considering that President Yoon Suk-yeol was prosecutor general when the prosecution service violated its political neutrality, some think Yoon should, at the very least, offer an apology.

On Thursday, Hong Ihk-pyo, the floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, called on Yoon and Han Dong-hoon, the interim leader of the ruling People Power Party, to make a public apology.

“President Yoon first acted as if the scandal was a scheme against himself, and then he pretended not to know anything about it. Yoon, along with Han Dong-hoon and the People Power Party, need to apologize to the Korean people and take responsibility for the scandal,” said Hong during a policy coordination meeting at the National Assembly that morning.

“Public prosecutors are being used for one person’s private gain. They’ve meddled in politics, and they’ve meddled in the election. This is an outrageous assault on the institutions of the state, and the parties responsible must be brought to justice,” chimed in Park Ju-min, the Democratic Party’s chief deputy floor leader.

An investigation into senior officials’ potential involvement in the political meddling scandal was conducted by the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials. As part of its investigation, the CIO even booked Yoon and Han on charges of obstructing the exercise of rights and abusing their authority in collusion with Son Jun-sung, the prosecutor convicted on Wednesday.

The CIO had reason to explore those suspicions. According to the Justice Ministry’s decision to discipline Yoon and the CIO’s decision not to prosecute Yoon or Han Dong-hoon, there was a sharp uptick in texting between Han Dong-hoon and Son both in a private chatroom on KakaoTalk and in a group chat room with Kwon Sun-jeong, the spokesperson for the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) at the time. There were 93 messages exchanged on March 31, another 66 on April 1, and 138 on April 2, during the three days before Son delivered the criminal complaints to opposition party figures.

On the day before delivering the criminal complaints, Son also posted 60 photographs, which may well have been related to the complaints, to the same group chat room. That was when Han Dong-hoon and Son were assigned to different offices in the prosecution service, Han at the Busan High Prosecutors’ Office and Son at the SPO.

Yoon also spoke on the phone with Han Dong-hoon very frequently around this time, with 12 phone calls taking place on April 1 and 17 on April 2.

Han Dong-su, the former head of the SPO internal affairs office, testified during the political meddling trial in October 2023 that “Son was instant messaging with a staffer in the office of the [prosecutor general’s] personal secretary,” suggesting the possibility that Yoon could have been briefed about Son’s delivery of the criminal complaints. The fact that the criminal complaints list Yoon, his wife and Han Dong-hoon as victims of defamation also raises questions about who would have ordered such an effort.

One possibility is that Yoon may have arranged for the criminal complaints to be filed in an attempt to break out of a tricky situation. Early 2020 (when the criminal complaints were being drafted and delivered) was a time when Yoon’s influence inside the SPO was being undermined by demotions of closely aligned prosecutors following Choo Mi-ae’s appointment as minister of justice by President Moon Jae-in.

Han Dong-hoon, Yoon’s closest ally, was implicated in a widely publicized scandal revolving around alleged extortion of a businessperson to bring down a pro-Moon figure, and the media was regularly covering allegations that Yoon’s wife Kim Keon-hee had manipulated stock prices at Deutsch Motors and about a bank balance statement fabricated by Choe Eun-sun, Yoon’s mother-in-law.

But in May 2022, the CIO decided not to press charges against Yoon or Han Dong-hoon without even calling them in for questioning, let alone carrying out a search of their houses. The CIO reportedly closed its investigation due to a lack of evidence.

Numerous hurdles would have to be cleared before the investigation could be reopened. For one thing, there’s resistance within the CIO to investigating Han Dong-hoon, who is the acting head of the ruling party, or Yoon, who as president enjoys immunity from indictment.

But considering that prosecutors Seong Sang-wook and Im Hong-seok fell under suspicion of being involved in drafting the criminal complaints during Son’s trial, some think the CIO could reopen an investigation into them by reviewing the results of its previous investigation. The CIO is still looking into charges that Im destroyed evidence.

Kim Han-me, who filed a criminal complaint against Son and others to the CIO in September 2021, is planning to file similar complaints against Yoon and others as early as next week. Kim is head of a group called Civic Action to Bring Justice Back to the Judiciary.

“The court has acknowledged that the prosecution service was acting on an organizational level. I’ve decided to file more criminal complaints so that we can get to the bottom of that organized action and find out who was pulling the strings,” Kim said.

By Jeon Gwang-joon, staff reporter; Kang Jae-gu, staff reporter

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