[News analysis] Choo-Yoon clash is rooted in power struggle between Blue House and prosecutors

Posted on : 2020-10-21 17:45 KST Modified on : 2020-10-21 17:45 KST
Prosecutors’ are trying to preserve authority by blocking Moon’s reform agenda
South Korean Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae (left) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. (graphic by Ko Yun-gyeol)
South Korean Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae (left) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. (graphic by Ko Yun-gyeol)

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s invocation of her investigative authority over Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl in the Lime Asset Management case and a case involving Yoon’s own family members is a lawful measure based on Article 8 of the Prosecutors’ Office Act, which specifies terms concerning the justice minister’s direction and supervision powers.

“The Minister of Justice shall, as a chief superintendent to supervise prosecutorial affairs, direct and supervise prosecutors in general, and with respect to specific cases, direct and supervise only the Prosecutor General,” the article states.

The provision has been included in the Prosecutors’ Office Act ever since it was enacted in 1949. It exists as a safeguard to ensure the political neutrality of prosecutors by preventing the justice minister -- a government official in political service -- from interfering directly in investigations, trials, and other prosecutorial duties.

The first time a justice minister invoked investigation direction and supervision powers was under the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2005, when then Minister Chun Jung-bae directed Prosecutor General Kim Jong-bin to conduct an investigation without detention against professor Kang Jeong-koo. More precisely, there had never been any need for the justice minister to invoke this authority. There are two reasons.

First, presidents and the Blue House had routinely interfered in investigations and trials by prosecutors. The prosecutor general was effectively a “henchman” to the president. Second, it was common for the justice minister to direct and supervise the prosecutor general and other prosecutors in their specific handling of cases. Most justice ministers had been prosecutors themselves.

Under the Roh administration, both practices came to an abrupt stop. Instead of controlling the prosecutors, Roh sought to make them independent from political authority. It was the right idea, but also a naïve one. Without controls against them, government official groups inevitably turn into monsters. Rather than maintaining political neutrality, the prosecutors opted to turn themselves into a political force.

In 2005, Chun Jung-bae’s investigation direction authority represented the only means available to him. Kim Jong-bin stepped down, but the prosecutors set about sharpening their knives. The investigation launched against Roh after he left office smacked strongly of retaliation on the prosecutors’ part.

Fifteen years later, a similar scene is unfolding. As with the Roh administration, the reason stems from the Moon administration’s naivete. President Moon Jae-in made two missteps. First, he put the job of “eradicating deep-rooted vices” in the prosecutors’ hands early on in his administration. Second, he appointed Yoon Seok-youl -- a staunch believer in prosecutorial authority -- as Prosecutor General.

When he appointed former Democratic Party leader Choo to replace Cho Kuk as the justice minister after the latter stepped down amid a scandal last year, Moon effectively admitted that his appointment of Yoon had been a mistake. But he had no way of forcing the prosecutor general to quit with two years left in his term.

Same battle would continue even if Choo and Yoo were out of the picture

The reason for the clash between Choo and Yoon is not a matter of their respective characters and temperaments. At its root, this situation is a clash between political forces seeking to realize a political achievement by seeing through prosecutorial reforms, and prosecutors dead set against losing any of their sweeping powers. If either Choo or Yoon were to step down, the battle would continue with whoever took their place. This might even be true under a different president -- and even if the opposition party were to come to power.

How much longer will the South Korean public have to endure this tedious battle? Prosecutorial reforms will be considered a success if they irreversibly disperse the untrammeled authority prosecutors currently enjoy. Until then, the fight between political forces and prosecutors is fated to wear on.

Choo’s direction of the investigations may be lawful, but that doesn’t mean the decision is politically justifiable. The Blue House lent its support on Oct. 20, insisting that Choo’s invocation of investigation direction powers was “inevitable.” But signs suggest that the ruling party was actually taken aback. Many observers are arguing that Choo has gone too far in directing an investigation of a case involving Yoon’s family.

By Seong Han-yong, political correspondent

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

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