[News analysis] After elections, prosecutorial reform will likely make legislative agenda

Posted on : 2024-04-18 17:05 KST Modified on : 2024-04-18 17:05 KST
With a strong majority in the legislature, the opposition looks poised to jumpstart debate on prosecutorial reform
Cho Kuk marches with fellow lawmakers-elect from his Rebuilding Korea Party to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul on April 11, 2024, where they call for an investigation into first lady Kim Keon-hee. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)
Cho Kuk marches with fellow lawmakers-elect from his Rebuilding Korea Party to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul on April 11, 2024, where they call for an investigation into first lady Kim Keon-hee. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)

After the political opposition secured a landslide victory in South Korea’s general elections last week, discussions about reforming the country’s prosecution service are regaining momentum. Yet even if the new National Assembly passes a bill that reduces or reforms the authority of the prosecutors, President Yoon Suk-yeol could still effectively veto it. But as the recent election was a clear indication of public dissatisfaction with the incumbent administration, to exercise his right to veto will pose a greater political risk for Yoon than before.

Cho Kuk’s newly formed Rebuilding Korea Party ran on a platform of 10 major policy initiatives, including prosecutorial reform. Cho specifically called for the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to be rebranded as the “Indictment Office,” pledging to effectively strip the prosecutors of their investigative authority. The pledge came as a shock to the prosecutor community. 

Cho, who was handed a prison sentence in his appeal trial on academic fraud charges, has been accused of using his political platform to enact personal revenge against the prosecutors. 

Certainly, his pledge is not without its concerns. Yet the Rebuilding Korea Party secured 24% of votes, signifying that Cho’s campaign promises cannot be written off as simply a personal vendetta. The Democratic Party has also pledged to separate the powers of investigation and prosecution.   

The most notable campaign pledge of the Rebuilding Korea Party is “redefining the role of the prosecution service to an institution that issues indictments while monitoring the legality of the police’s investigative methods and tactics.” Cho pursued prosecutorial reform when he was the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs under the Moon Jae-in administration. At the time, his reforms stripped the prosecutors of their authority to monitor the police in their investigations. Under the Rebuilding Korea Party, it looks like he’s seeking to resurrect the prosecutors’ authority to monitor the police while stripping them of their investigative authority by transferring it to the police entirely. 

This measure is more in line with proposals made by former Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il and former lawmaker Keum Tae-seop. The Moon Jae-in administration also pursued the separation of power related to investigations (police) and indictments (prosecutors), but vehement opposition from prosecutors resulted in a lackluster compromise. Reforms regarding prosecutors and the national police in 2021 stripped prosecutors of their authority to directly lead and monitor police investigations, but it preserved prosecutors’ authority to head their own investigations when it came to six types of felonies. There was a move later to establish a separate institution for investigating serious crimes, but Yoon Suk-yeol, who was prosecutor general at the time, managed to block this initiative. 

Despite 2022 revisions to legislation regarding criminal procedure and the prosecutors’ office, prosecutors still retained their authority to lead their own investigations on corruption and financial crimes. Much of the public was also convinced that the prosecutors were a necessary force to take on high-profile investigations that were out of the police’s depth. 

Now that Cho, a leading proponent of prosecutorial reform, is in the National Assembly, he’s likely to rekindle the debate about whether the prosecution service should retain its investigative authority. What’s less clear is whether the Korean public will again side with the prosecutors.

That’s partly because of what the prosecutors have been doing with their directive investigative powers. During the two years since Yoon became president, the three anti-corruption divisions at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office (the biggest special investigative divisions at the prosecution service) have been wholly focused on investigating figures from the political opposition.

The service’s criminal divisions, responsible for dealing with economic crimes, have been downsized, while the anti-corruption divisions have been repeatedly expanded.

The prosecutors have gotten results from their investigation of envelopes filled with cash that were handed out before the Democratic Party’s convention in 2021. But the prosecution service’s tendency to shift the targets of its investigations whenever power changes hands raises questions about its political neutrality.

The prosecutors insist, of course, that they’re prepared to investigate anyone who breaks the law. But everybody knows it would be Yoon’s wife Kim Keon-hee, and not Kim Hye-kyung (wife of opposition leader Lee Jae-myung), who would be facing questions from the prosecutors if Lee had won the last presidential election instead of Yoon.

The same prosecution service that investigated a reporter from Channel A with the ultimate goal of implicating then-senior prosecutor Han Dong-hoon is now investigating journalists from progressive-leaning media outlets. There is speculation that the prosecutors are actually gunning for members of Lee’s election campaign who they believe were behind the journalists’ reporting.

Korean politicians need to recognize that prosecutors must be not only the subjects of reform, but also the agents of reform, and include them in the discussion.  A substantial portion of revisions to the Criminal Procedure Act and the Prosecutors’ Office Act made in 2022 were handily defanged by government enforcement decrees.

It’s worth remembering that laws are made in the National Assembly, but maintained by the prosecution service.

Conversely, the prosecutors should themselves take ownership of the reform drive. Otherwise, they’ll keep being described as the subjects of reform.

It’s time to end the tragic cycle of the prosecution service being turned head over heels whenever a new party comes to power.

By Jeong Hye-min, staff reporter

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


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