[News analysis] S. Korea’s justice minister orders practical steps to investigate prosecutor general

Posted on : 2020-11-19 17:22 KST Modified on : 2020-11-19 17:22 KST
The conflict between Choo Mi-ae and Yoon Seok-youl escalates
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae (left) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae (left) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl

An attempt by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to send prosecutors from its inspector general’s office to coordinate a questioning schedule for an inspection of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl failed to pan out amid objections from the Supreme Prosecutor's Office (SPO). As practical steps are taken to implement Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae’s order to inspect Yoon, tensions between the two sides continue to escalate.

According to an investigation by the Hankyoreh on Nov. 18, two prosecutors dispatched from the MOJ inspector general’s office visited the SPO at around 2 pm the day before to deliver a document with a schedule for questioning in connection with Yoon’s inspection. They were attempting to provide notification of a questioning time at 2 pm on Nov. 19 after the SPO failed to respond to multiple attempts beforehand to coordinate a questioning schedule.

The two prosecutors explained that Choo had ordered the inspection of Yoon, announcing plans to personally deliver a document to Yoon containing the questioning schedule. But Jeon Mu-gon, director of the SPO Planning and Coordination Department, sent the prosecutors back to the MOJ with the message that Yoon would “respond in writing if an explanation is requested according to procedure.” The SPO said it also sent the written request for a meeting with the prosecutor general back to the MOJ inspector general’s office.

While the SPO has shied away from providing any official explanation, the very situation of ordinary prosecutors from the MOJ inspector general’s office attempting to arrange a meeting with Yoon has been perceived as an “insult.”

A document circulated among prosecutors described the situation by stating that “Lee [name redacted] and Yoon [name redacted], front-line prosecutors recently sent on orders from MOJ inspection officer Park Eun-jeong, demanded a meeting with the Prosecutor General for in-person inspection questioning. In response, the Prosecutor General said that this was ‘not proper’ and that he would ‘respond in writing if an explanation is requested according to procedure, and the prosecutors returned to the MOJ.” The same document also said, “While this was most likely intended as an insult, it is still painful to see the lack of even a modicum of respect for an official position.”

A MOJ official explained, “The prosecutors did not visit to question Prosecutor General Yoon, but to coordinate a schedule for questioning. It makes no sense to suggest that they would be so cavalier about questioning the prosecutor general.”

The same official added, “The MOJ inspector generals’ office had attempted several times to coordinate a questioning schedule for the inspection, and the prosecutors took over a document for that purpose after [the SPO] refused to reply. They had called the SPO that morning before visiting.”

While the MOJ and SPO have offered different interpretations of the visit by two prosecutors from the inspector general’s office, one thing is clear: the MOJ’s personal inspection of Yoon is in motion. It communicated the intent to follow Choo’s directions with MOJ prosecutors personally questioning him in connection with his direction of the Lime Asset Management investigation, the decision to not press charges on the Optimus case while he was serving as director of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, and his meetings with the owners of the Chosun Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo newspapers.

Act on Discipline of Prosecutors gives justice minister right to discipline prosecutor general

According to the Act on Discipline of Prosecutors, while the prosecutor general has the authority to discipline prosecutors in general, the agent authorized to discipline the prosecutor general is the justice minister. An attorney and former chief prosecutor with experience in inspection-related duties explained, “Now that the MOJ has finished its information gathering stage, it is attempting to meet with Prosecutor General Yoon for questioning.”

“Once the party being inspected has been questioned, there will be a determination as to whether to proceed with disciplinary action or drop the charges,” the attorney added.

This is not the first time a justice minister has attempted an inspection of a prosecutor general. In 2013, then Minister of Justice Hwang Kyo-ahn ordered an inspection of Prosecutor General Chae Dong-wook amid allegations of a “love child,” although the inspection never came to pass when Chae opted to step down. But with Choo’s inspection orders going beyond words and into action amid her pitched battle with Yoon, the unprecedented inspection of a prosecutor general appears to be a matter of time.

“There’s no way of knowing what kind of situation is about to unfold,” said a prosecutor with one prosecutors’ office in Seoul, adding that the “situation with the conflict between them drawing all the attention has just been a headache for the front line prosecutors doing the actual grunt work.”

By Bae Ji-hyun and Ock Kee-won, staff reporters

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

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