‘Punitive’: Prosecutor who led internal probe into Yoon is dismissed by Justice Ministry

Posted on : 2024-03-05 17:23 KST Modified on : 2024-03-05 17:23 KST
Park Eun-jeong is yet another prosecutor who clashed with Yoon Suk-yeol to be dismissed
Park Eun-jeong, a public prosecutor in charge of the major economic crimes investigation team at the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office, speaks to reporters while heading into the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in October 2022. (Yonhap)
Park Eun-jeong, a public prosecutor in charge of the major economic crimes investigation team at the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office, speaks to reporters while heading into the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in October 2022. (Yonhap)

The South Korean Ministry of Justice has dismissed Park Eun-jeong, a public prosecutor in charge of the major economic crimes investigation team at the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office. It was Park who led the ministry’s internal investigation into current president Yoon Suk-yeol when he was prosecutor general during the presidency of Moon Jae-in in 2020.

Park’s dismissal is being criticized as a retaliatory measure not only because most of the grounds given for disciplinary action have already been judged trivial by courts and law enforcement but also because other prosecutors who have clashed with Yoon and his allies — including Shin Sung-sik and Lee Seong-yoon, analysts at the Institute of Justice — have been dismissed as well.

The Ministry of Justice’s disciplinary committee for public prosecutors decided in a meeting on Feb. 27 to dismiss Park, the Hankyoreh learned Monday. The Act on Discipline of Prosecutors describes five types of disciplinary action: reprimand, reduction of wages, suspension, removal and dismissal, with dismissal being the harshest type of discipline available.

“Taking punitive disciplinary action against me for carrying out an internal investigation of President Yoon is intended to present that whole investigation as an illegal act. Considering that I carried out the internal investigation in good faith and that a related criminal investigation is currently underway, I cannot accept this harsh disciplinary measure,” Park said in a telephone call with the Hankyoreh on Monday.

Park plans to file a lawsuit to reverse the ministry’s disciplinary measure.

The ministry gave three reasons for the disciplinary measures it took against Park.

First, while Park was carrying out an internal investigation into Yoon as the ministry’s head of internal affairs, she provided members of the internal investigation committee investigating Yoon with copies of some records from the “Channel A” incident collected for use in an internal investigation into Han Dong-hoon, who was a senior prosecutor at the time. The ministry described that as leaking official secrets.

Second, Park used those records as evidence in the internal investigation into Yoon, which the ministry characterized as a violation of the Personal Information Protection Act.

Third, when a prosecutor assigned to be the ministry’s head of internal investigations concluded in a report that Yoon hadn’t overstepped his authority in regard to a list of judges to be placed under surveillance, Park ordered that the report be revised.

But Korea’s courts and law enforcement have already found no issues with any of those three actions. When the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office investigated the allegation that Park had leaked official secrets in June 2021, it declined to file charges against her.

In October 2021, a district court mulling Yoon’s request for the reversal of the ministry’s disciplinary measures against him addressed Park’s order for the report to be revised, saying that “Yoon’s orders for the composition and delivery of a list of judges to be placed under supervision could be seen as an abuse of his authority.” According to that ruling, Park’s order for a revision could not easily be seen as an abuse of her authority.

Currently, Park is being investigated on the charge of overstepping her authority by the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials and on the charge of violating the Personal Information Protection Act and the Protection of Communications Secrets Act by the fifth criminal division of the Seoul Central District Office, which was ordered to reopen its investigation by the Seoul High Court in June 2022.

Some think the Justice Ministry is carrying out punitive disciplinary measures for the benefit of former prosecutors who are now powerful politicians including Yoon, who is president, and Han, the interim leader of the ruling People Power Party.

Lee Seong-yoon, an analyst at the Institute of Justice, was recently dismissed for comparing Yoon’s loyalist prosecutors to the cabal behind Chun Doo-hwan, the country’s former dictator. Lee made the comments at an event celebrating the publication of a book by former Justice Minister Cho Kuk while Lee was head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.

Shin Sung-sik, a former senior prosecutor also demoted to the position of analyst at the Institute of Justice, was himself dismissed recently while being tried on the charge of defaming Han Dong-hoon.

“Taking harsh disciplinary action against Park Eun-jeong is designed to make clear in the records that the disciplinary action against Yoon Suk-yeol was illegal,” said Lee Chang-min, the head of a committee for reforming Korea’s prosecutors and police at Minbyun-Lawyers for a Democratic Society.

In December 2023, a high court accepted Yoon’s petition for the disciplinary measures against him to be reversed, overruling the lower court’s decision. The ministry did not appeal the high court’s decision, allowing it to become the final word in the case.

“Considering the fact that the Ministry of Justice had cleared Son Jun-sung of all suspicions before a guilty verdict was even announced in the case of his encouragement of criminal complaints [against Democratic Party figures], it seems the ministry makes its disciplinary decisions based not on the grounds for disciplinary action, but who stands to face them,” said another lawyer associated with Minbyun. 

“It goes to show how the prosecution service picks sides, and how loyal it is to anything that benefits its ‘side,’” the lawyer added. 

By Oh Yeon-seo, staff reporter

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