Prosecutor general says he is not an “underling” of the justice minister

Posted on : 2020-10-23 17:25 KST Modified on : 2020-10-23 17:25 KST
Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol speaks during a parliamentary audit of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office by the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee on Oct. 22. (photo pool)
Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol speaks during a parliamentary audit of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office by the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee on Oct. 22. (photo pool)

In response to Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae’s orders to exclude Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol from investigations into the Lime Asset Management scandal and into allegations involving Yoon’s own family members, Yoon has maintained that a “majority of prosecutors and jurists view them [Choo’s orders] as being in violation of the Prosecutors’ Office Act.”

Legal analysts remain divided over whether Choo’s orders are “contrary to the law” as Yoon claims.

Attending a parliamentary audit of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) by the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee on Oct. 22, Yoon responded to a question from People Power Party lawmaker Yoon Han-hong asking for his views on Choo’s investigation directions.

“Can I just briefly comment?” he replied, before saying, “If you simply view it in legal terms, the prosecutor general is not an underling of the justice minister.” He went on to say that investigation orders that exclude the prosecutor general from certain cases, such as those that Choo had issued in repeated cases, were “contrary to the law and unjust.”

Article 8 of the Prosecutors’ Office Act states, “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.”

Commenting on the meaning of this provision, Yoon said, “If I can give an exceptional example, it means that if the justice minister has cause to state a position or opinion regarding affairs of the Seoul [Central] District Prosecutors’ Office or Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office, he or she should do so through the prosecutor general.”

“As far as whether he or she has the right to exclude the prosecutor general from certain cases, most prosecutors and jurists argue that it’s a violation of the law, a violation of the Prosecutors’ Office Act,” he continued.

Explaining his reason for accepting Choo’s direction even when he deemed it to be unlawful, Yoon said that it was because “the negative effects would be felt by the South Korean public.”

“There is the question of whether to fight a legal battle and take this into a dispute, but if we did that, it would cause too much chaos for the judicial and prosecutorial organization, and it is ultimately the South Korean public who would suffer from that,” he said.

“The prosecutors simply aren’t talking about it openly. But on the front lines, everyone thinks [Choo’s order] is unlawful and unjust,” he reiterated.

Choo’s order jeopardizes political neutrality of prosecutors

Yoon also argued that it could jeopardize the political neutrality of prosecutors if the justice minister were to interfere in prosecutors’ investigations and treat them as “underlings” as a government official. His argument was that because the minister is “someone who is fundamentally a politician, a government official in political service,” the treatment of the prosecutor general as “the minister’s subordinate” would result in “something a long way from political neutrality or judicial independence of the prosecutors, where investigations and indictments are reduced to political standing.”

“In a case like this one involving someone expected to receive an extremely heavy sentence, it is truly insensible to take away the prosecutor general’s jurisdiction and attack the prosecutors on one word from people like that,” he added.

Divided outlook from legal community regarding legality of Choo’s actions

Opinions in the legal community are divided on the issue. Lee Wan-gyu, an attorney and former assistant prosecutor general, argued that Choo’s order to exclude the prosecutor general from exercising direction and supervision authority in the Lime Asset Management case and others could indeed be in violation of the law.

“It comes down to the issue of the justice minister interfering in specific cases,” he argued.

Another former assistant prosecutor general agreed, arguing, “While the justice minister can issue directions in terms of what to do about specific cases, it goes beyond the framework of Article 8 for her to take away the prosecutor general’s authority to direct investigations.”

“It is a matter of preventing the prosecutor general from exercising his authority to supervise and direct SPO officials without defining the grounds,” the source said.

In contrast, attorney Yang Hong-seok, a onetime director of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) Public Interest Law Center, said, “Since there is no real precedent for the justice minister exercising investigation direction powers, you can see opinions on interpreting the law as being divided.”

“It seems like Minister Choo’s investigation direction occupies that gray area,” Yang suggested.

Another attorney and former chief prosecutor said, “If Minister Choo’s direction is unlawful as Prosecutor General Yoon concluded, that raises issues with his own actions in accepting that unlawful direction.”

“A government official is obliged not to comply with unlawful directions,” the attorney stressed.

“Apart from any questions about illegality, the very situation right now where the justice minister, a politician, keeps becoming involved in specific investigations definitely sets a bad precedent in terms of the prosecutors’ political neutrality,” they added.

By Lim Jae-woo, staff reporter

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