Democratic Party lawmakers rally outside their party’s headquarters to denounce prosecutors' attempt to raid the party’s policy think tank, the Institute for Democracy, on Oct. 19. (Park Jong-shik/The Hankyoreh)
Korea’s prosecutors have been ramping up their investigations into members of the Moon Jae-in administration and Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung.
On Wednesday, they arrested Kim Yong — the vice president of the party’s think tank and a close associate of Lee’s — on charges of violating the Political Funds Act. They also ended up facing off against opposition party lawmakers when they attempted to conduct a search and seizure on the Democratic Party’s headquarters in addition to Kim’s home.
A day earlier, they requested arrest warrants for former Defense Minister Suh Wook and others in connection with the government’s response to a 2000 incident in which North Korean soldiers shot a South Korean government official in the West Sea. On Wednesday, they summoned former presidential chief of staff Noh Young-min for questioning on a 2019 incident involving the repatriation of North Korean fishers who had killed their fellow crew members.
While it’s too early to know the full story about each of these incidents, prosecutors should be wary of the potential for their onslaught to call their political neutrality and fairness into question.
The timing and methods of their investigations have certainly been unusual. When it comes to politically sensitive cases, the practice in the past has been for prosecutors to adjust the timing of their raids and warrant requests so as not to cause unnecessary misunderstandings. But the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office chose to make its surprise warrant requests for Suh and others on Tuesday, the same day that it was facing a parliamentary audit.
Given that the cases have already been the subject of sweeping raids and audits by the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI), it’s unclear whether the warrant requests were really all that pressing a matter. It also gave the impression that prosecutors were wasting no time in answering a request for an investigation just four days earlier from the BAI, which had come under fire for neglecting procedures and conducting a “politicized” audit.
The attempt to raid an opposition party’s headquarters was especially unprecedented. In the case of the investigation into Kim Yong, word was already spreading around midday on Wednesday that prosecutors were targeting Lee Jae-myung’s campaign funds.
Prosecutors today are not what they used to be. Some are even describing them as being under the “direct control” of President Yoon Suk-yeol, himself a former prosecutor general. Trust in their political neutrality and fairness has been severely eroded.
At the same time, little if any progress has been made in investigating allegations concerning members of Yoon’s circle, including Deutsch Motors stock price manipulation allegations involving his wife, Kim Keon-hee. Prosecutors also opted not to press charges against PPP lawmaker Kim Woong in connection with a case involving the incitement of legal complaints.
If prosecutors hope to be trusted by the public, they need to be more cautious than before when it comes to their investigations, taking even more thorough steps to ensure the appearance of fairness.
The problem is that none of their recent activities have shown any sign of such efforts.
In their outcry over the attempted raid on their headquarters, members of the Democratic Party announced that they were suspending their parliamentary audit. Given the crises that we’re facing with our security and economy, it only hurts the South Korean public when the National Assembly stops functioning, and political strife intensifies because of these investigations by prosecutors.
We hope that both the prosecutors and the opposition party will keep to the right path — remembering that the best way forward is to win the public’s trust.
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