[Column] Rule of law or rule of lawyers?

Posted on : 2021-10-24 09:42 KST Modified on : 2021-10-24 09:42 KST
Legal professionals in Korea are enjoying rapidly expanding influence in the realms of politics and the economy
Presidential contenders Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Seok-youl (graphic by Park Min-ji)
Presidential contenders Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Seok-youl (graphic by Park Min-ji)

The first attorneys in modern Korean history emerged during the late stages of the Joseon era. The “Encyclopedia of Korean Culture” records that “Hong Jae-gi and two others received their attorney licenses through Legal Decree No. 4 in 1906.”

A century later in 2006, the number of attorneys registered with the Korean Bar Association passed the 10,000 mark. South Korea currently boasts over 35,000 legal professionals, including attorneys, judges and prosecutors.

That’s more than the number of accountants (24,000), but far fewer than the number of physicians (130,000, not counting dentists and doctors of Korean medicine) or pharmacists (80,000).

Yet the prestige that legal professionals enjoy in the eyes of South Koreans is something that goes beyond numbers. Their influence is rapidly expanding beyond the legal world and into the realms of politics and the economy.

Among the current presidential hopefuls, Democratic Party nominee and Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung is a member of the legal world, as are the two top People Power Party (PPP) contenders, former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and National Assembly member Hong Joon-pyo. If the current trends keep up, the 20th President of South Korea will be a former legal professional, just like 19th President Moon Jae-in.

Among members of the 21st National Assembly, 46 (15.3%) are legal professionals, far outnumbering those who passed the public administration examination (27), journalists (20), and businesspeople (11).

A total of 816 people were appointed as outside directors at general shareholder meetings for listed companies this April. Attorneys accounted for 95 of them, or 11.6% — a respectable third place behind university professors (228) and businesspeople (153).

The rise of legal professionals holds a positive meaning, in the sense that the employment of legal experts is a reflection of a growing climate of the rule of law.

In his book “People, Power, and Profits,” Joseph Stiglitz, a professor and Nobel laureate in economics, stressed the importance of the rule of law as a key element in the outstanding social organizations that form a central pillar of national wealth. Legal professionals perform a special public function in making the rule of law happen: The ultimate reason for attorneys’ existence lies in the practice of the public interest, with the realization of justice and the rule of law, he writes.

South Koreans have been very upset, then, to find many prominent legal professionals implicated in the recent scandal surrounding development improprieties in Seongnam’s Daejang neighborhood — among them former Supreme Court justices, special prosecutors, prosecutors general, and chief prosecutors.

In another scandal concerning prosecutors’ alleged incitement of legal complaints, many of the key figures involved are legal professionals: prosecutor Son Jun-seong and PPP lawmaker Kim Woong, who are respectively alleged to have sent and received the complaint documents, and Yoon Seok-youl, who is subjected of pulling the strings for Son.

As the key figures in our judicial system, legal professionals command great authority and a profound influence that extends throughout society.

When they lose sight of their public responsibilities even for a moment and slip out of social control — focusing their energies instead on pursuing private regards regardless of the law — that is a serious matter indeed. That in and of itself undermines the rule of law and negates legal professionals’ very reason for being.

Just like the “Republic of Samsung” that places itself above the law, the “Republic of Legal Professionals” Korea sees today must also be a target of reforms.

By Kwack Jung-soo, editorial writer

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

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