Yoon’s prosecutor reshuffle may have set the stage for long-awaited prosecutorial overhaul

Posted on : 2024-05-26 08:49 KST Modified on : 2024-05-26 08:56 KST
Yoon was once considered an advocate of the prosecution service, now he may have sealed its fate
First lady Kim Keon-hee enters the presidential office in Seoul with Cambodian first lady Pich Chanmony during the latter’s visit to Korea on May 16, 2024. (courtesy of the presidential office)
First lady Kim Keon-hee enters the presidential office in Seoul with Cambodian first lady Pich Chanmony during the latter’s visit to Korea on May 16, 2024. (courtesy of the presidential office)

The most surprising incident to take place last week in Korea was the reshuffle of high-level prosecutors. 

The fact that I use the term “incident” to refer to the administration’s appointment of chief prosecutors gives an indication of how unusual and impactful the timing and content were. 

The president holds the power to appoint prosecutors. Article 78 of the Republic of Korea’s Constitution states, “The President shall appoint and dismiss public officials under the conditions as prescribed by the Constitution and Act.” 

Article 34 of the Prosecutors' Office Act states, “The appointment of prosecutors and assignment of positions to prosecutors shall be made by the President upon the proposal of the Minister of Justice.”  

The president is entitled by both the Constitution and the law to appoint the country’s top prosecutors as he pleases. So, what’s the problem? It’s a different story, however, if the president exploits this authority to shield his wife from a criminal investigation. This is exercising the powers granted by the state for personal gain. 

The investigation into the first lady is by the book? 

The personnel shuffle is a sensitive issue. Everything said or hinted at by anyone affiliated with the presidential office, the prosecution service, and the Ministry of Justice regarding the matter is the subject of public scrutiny. Officially, the presidential office has chosen to remain silent, refusing to offer any stance on claims that the transfers of prosecutors were a deliberate attempt to protect the first lady. Naturally. Politically, it’s their only viable option.   

When questioned by reporters on his way to work on May 14, Prosecutor General Lee One-seok offered the following responses: 

Reporter: Was there any coordination or agreement with the incumbent prosecutor general before your appointment? 

Lee: Regarding yesterday’s appointments… [a brief pause] I am unable to comment right now. 

Reporter: There are rumors that your predecessor was exiled after getting on the presidential office’s bad side. Any comment? 

Lee: It’s not my place to confirm or deny those rumors.  

Reporter: There are concerns that the change in leadership will disrupt the investigation into the first lady. 

Lee: Regardless of who is leading the investigation, I will work with the team tasked with the investigation to ensure that it proceeds according to the law and the evidence alone, with no other considerations. By the book. I trust our prosecutors and our investigators. Appointments are appointments, and investigations are investigations.  

The Prosecutors’ Office Act dictates that the Justice Ministry recommends prosecutorial appointments. Reporters questioned Justice Minister Park Sung-jae as he headed to the office on the morning of May 16.  

Reporter: What do you think about allegations that the presidential office directed the latest round of prosecutorial appointments? 

Park: Don’t you think those allegations are a bit condescending toward the head of the Ministry of Justice? The Justice Ministry fully exercised its authority to propose new appointments. Do you think the presidential office did everything on its own?  

Reporter: What about suspicions that the appointments were made to shield the first lady? 

Park: Do the new appointments terminate the investigation? You know they don’t. The investigations will proceed as scheduled. 

Lee Chang-su, the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, was approached by reporters on the morning of May 16. 

Reporter: Will these new appointments disrupt the investigation into the first lady regarding her acceptance of a luxury handbag?  

Lee: We will do our jobs as prosecutors according to procedure and the law — irrespective of the personnel shuffle.   

Reporter: Is there a possibility of prosecutors subpoenaing the first lady? 

Lee: I can’t divulge such details at this stage, but I will swiftly assess the situation and take the necessary and appropriate measures. 

According to Lee One-seok, Park Sung-jae and Lee Chang-soo, the personnel shuffle will have no impact on the investigation into the first lady. Can we take them at their word?  

Shows her face after 153 days  

A reshuffle in leadership sends a message. Corporations restructure their leadership or appoint new CEOs to send a message to the entire organization. Through his latest prosecutorial appointments, President Yoon Suk-yeol has sent a clear message to all prosecutors: Leave the first lady alone.  

After all, prosecutors are only human. Everybody has the president’s message, loud and clear. Who in their right mind would aggressively pursue the first lady at this point?

Prosecutor General Lee One-seok answers questions from the press while on his way into the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul’s Seocho District on May 14, 2024. (Kim Young-won/The Hankyoreh)
Prosecutor General Lee One-seok answers questions from the press while on his way into the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul’s Seocho District on May 14, 2024. (Kim Young-won/The Hankyoreh)

 Having reshuffled prosecutors at the district chief level, the Justice Ministry is moving to swiftly switch out mid-level prosecutors as well. Kim Seung-ho, the head of the 1st Criminal Division of the Seoul Central District, is leading the investigation into Kim Keon-hee’s acceptance of a luxury handbag. Choi Jae-hoon, head of the 2nd Anti-Corruption Division, is heading the probe into allegations that Kim was involved in the manipulation of stock prices at Deutsch Motors. It remains to be seen as to whether these two prosecutors will be replaced. Both Kim and Choi were appointed last September. If they are replaced, Yoon’s message to leave the first lady alone will become even clearer. The final nail in the coffin.  

Concern about the reshuffle is universal, indicated by various columns published in all the major papers the day after the appointments. 

“The president has chosen his close allies to lead investigations into the first lady. Is this a message to leave her alone?” (Kyunghyang Shinmun)  

“Country’s top prosecutors replaced in the middle of first lady investigation. Why now?” (Dong-a Ilbo)  

“Is the overhaul in prosecutorial leadership really necessary right now?” (Chosun Ilbo) 

“The suspicious timing of the latest prosecutorial appointments” (Joongang Ilbo) 

“Top prosecutors switched out while leading probes into first lady. A message to back off?” (Hankyoreh)  

As if their column weren’t enough, the Chosun Ilbo published an additional editorial titled, “Public criticizes president for abusing presidential authority to protect his wife,” on May 15. On May 16, chief columnist Kim Chang-gyun published another titled, “President’s loyal followers in prosecution service hold keys to first lady’s salvation.” On May 17, chief political reporter Choi Jae-hyuk published a column titled, “The meaning of Lee One-seok’s 7-second pause during his answer to reporters.”  

On May 15, Joongang Ilbo columnist Lee Sang-eon released a column titled, “Is prosecution normalization a pipe dream?” On May 16, the Dong-a Ilbo published an editorial titled, “The 7-second silence of the silenced Lee One-seok.” 

The most surprising statement, however, came not from the press but from the mouth of Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, who posted the following statement on his Facebook account the day after the appointments were announced. 

“How could we entrust a man who can’t even protect his own wife to protect the lives and property of 50 million Korean citizens? Let’s say the legality of your wife’s actions were being questioned, would you throw her to the hyenas just to save your own hide? Put yourself in his shoes. Think back to President Roh Moo-hyun and how he acted when the communist background of his father-in-law came to light. Protecting your own isn’t shady or exploitative. It’s a man’s basic duty. If you’re a real man. You do what you need to do, even if you take flak for it.”  

What do you think? On the surface, Hong is defending the president. Yet he is basically confirming the allegations that Yoon is utilizing prosecutorial appointments to shield his wife from prosecution. Hong’s Facebook’s post was the talk of the town for several days.   

During all this fuss, the first lady attended a morning banquet with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet and his wife on May 16. This was her first public appearance in 153 days. The peculiar timing of her reappearance indicates that Yoon and the first lady are prepared to face their accusers head-on.  

Unintended prosecutorial reform? 

There is one question that keeps burning me up. What, exactly, do the prosecutors represent to Yoon?  

Yoon was once considered an advocate of the prosecution service. This was back in 2019, during the Cho Kuk incident. Yoon became a prosecutor after taking the national exam nine times. He viewed the world through a prosecutor’s eyes. He faced those in political power and the prosecutorial leadership with the heart of a prosecutor. Being a prosecutor meant everything to him. Armed with this simplicity and passion, he threw himself into politics and became president.   

This same person, who was once so devoted to the mission of the prosecutors, is now using the prosecutors as his personal political tool. It’s reminiscent of the military regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. Prosecutors went after Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung with a vengeance, scraping up every last piece of dirt they could find. They even requested unreasonable arrest warrants that the courts rejected. Now the prosecutors are being employed by the president to protect the first lady. It’s an affront and a slap in the face to the honor and integrity of the prosecution service. A man who was once the prosecutors’ most vocal advocate is now their destroyer. He has betrayed his roots.  

Ironically, Yoon’s betrayal of the prosecutors has betrayed his political position by giving more public steam to the position that prosecutorial reform is not only justified but inevitable. Since South Korea’s democratization in 1987, all presidents have attempted prosecutorial reform only to fail. Presidents are limited to a five-year term, but prosecutors have no term limits. They are appointed, not elected. Their authority is more absolute.  

In a twist of fate, Yoon may be the one to get the job done, although his intentions face the complete opposite direction. Kim Yong-min, the vice policy chair of the Democratic Party, and Hwang Un-ha, the floor leader of the Rebuilding Korea Party, led a National Assembly discussion on “strategies to draft legislation to reform the prosecution service” on May 8. Democratic Party floor leader Park Chan-dae and Rebuilding Korea leader Party Cho Kuk were in attendance. Panel members and party leaders reached a consensus that the National Assembly needs to draft a bill for prosecutorial reform within the next six months.  

The opposition parties are likely to present legislation that would separate the powers of investigation and the powers of indictment, which are currently both the purview of the prosecutors. This would involve the formation of a new investigative body, tentatively named the “Investigation Office for Felonies,” while the power to indict would remain with the prosecutors. At the end of the Moon Jae-in administration, the National Assembly passed a Democratic Party bill that would have reduced the prosecutors’ investigative authority, but the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has nullified the bill using administrative measures. Even if Yoon exercises his power to veto during the 22nd National Assembly, it would take the defection of only eight People Power Party members to enable another vote on the bill. The conditions for prosecutorial reform are better within the 22nd National Assembly than in the previous iteration.   

Let me wrap this up, a historical review of the relationship between the prosecutors and government administrations reminds one of an epic historical series. The initial iterations of the prosecution service essentially served as the legal team for military regimes. After democratization in 1987, the prosecutors filled a large part of the power vacuum left by the departing military dictatorship. They have since grown their ranks and power while battling the president, whose authority they eventually overtook.  

Now, however, the president is a former prosecutor general. Yet as soon as the moon is full, it begins to wane again. We may be witnessing the beginning of something that no president has ever accomplished — prosecutorial reform — made possible by a president who was once the prosecutors’ biggest advocate. What do you think?      

By Seong Han-yong, senior staff writer 

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

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