[Column] South Korea: A land ruled by prosecutors

Posted on : 2022-10-25 15:34 KST Modified on : 2022-10-25 15:34 KST
In every power struggle that has occurred in Korea since 1987, the ultimate victor has not been the ruling party or the opposition party — it’s been the prosecutors
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to reports as he heads into the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Oct. 24. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to reports as he heads into the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Oct. 24. (presidential office pool photo)
By Seong Han-yong, senior editorial writer

South Korea’s public prosecutors held a low status under the dictatorial rule of Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. The prosecution service was weaker than the police, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Security Command.

At the time, the prosecution service amounted to a legal services provider for the regime. Its role was to wrap up the regime’s illegalities in neat legal packaging.

When the peaceful revolution in 1987 brought in Korea’s Sixth Republic, it created an opportunity for the prosecution service. Roh Tae-woo, the next president, gave office to prosecutors from Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province. Chung Hae-chang served as his chief of staff, and Seo Dong-gwon was put in charge of the Agency for National Security Planning (known today as the National Intelligence Service).

During a sweeping round of investigations into supposed communist activity in 1989 and a “war on crime” in 1990, the prosecutors pushed aside competing law enforcement agencies to achieve primacy. Following the establishment of their violent crime division, the prosecutors directly investigated narcotics and organized crime. Under the pretext of eliminating economic crimes, prosecutors trespassed on the turf of the police and the civil administration.

Prosecutors set up call centers to field reports about illegal behavior that undermined price stabilization. They organized a campaign to help parents feel safe about sending their kids to school.

Prosecutorial overreach sometimes sparked controversy. For example, the decision to jail a bunch of ramen company presidents for using industrial tallow in their food products backfired in what became a humiliating episode for Korea’s prosecutors.

Since the administration of Kim Young-sam, the prosecutors have taken the lead in putting members of previous administrations behind bars. It was around that time that Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were jailed.

The prosecutors also investigated the officials behind the policies that had led to the Asian financial crisis of the late ’90s. They weren’t above doing the government’s dirty work, leading to epithets about being the “hound of the government” or the “administration’s handmaiden.”

But that’s when the prosecutors initiated a competition for power with the political establishment itself. They arrested the president’s sons.

At drinking parties, prosecutors would often boast that “the administration is temporary, but the prosecutors are forever.” They even had a showdown with President Roh Moo-hyun.

During the presidencies of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, it might seem that the prosecutors reverted to their role as the “hound of the government,” but that wasn’t the case. Lee and Park weren’t locked up by President Moon Jae-in, but by the prosecutors.

In every power struggle that has occurred since 1987, the ultimate victor has not been the ruling party or the opposition party — it’s been the prosecutors. Grown to monstrous proportions, they’ve swallowed administrations. The very existence of Yoon is a testament to that.

While investigating the killing of a public servant in the Yellow Sea, the Yoon administration’s prosecutors have taken former Defense Minister Suh Wook and former Korea Coast Guard Commissioner General Kim Hong-hee into custody. The next targets of the investigation are likely to be former National Security Office Director Suh Hoon, former National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won and former President Moon Jae-in.

The prosecutors are also likely to play hardball in their investigation of the repatriation of two North Korean fishermen.

It will probably take some time before we learn the truth about the investigation into Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung and his associates. Even if it’s true that money changed hands, it’s uncertain whether Lee Jae-myung took the money to fund his campaign. If he did, he should be held responsible.

The investigations into the killing of a public servant by North Korea in coastal waters and the repatriation of the North Korean fishermen are reminiscent of the work of prosecutors in the national security division. The investigation into Lee Jae-myung and his associates is the sort that prosecutors from the now-disbanded "special investigations division” used to do. National security and special investigations have long been two mainstays of the political prosecutors.

Maybe that’s why it seems like the prosecutors are running the country today. Korea is being ruled by Yoon Suk-yeol, a career prosecutor; Han Dong-hoon, a career prosecutor; and the prosecutors in what has come to be called the “Yoon Division.”

Under this arrangement, the public can’t trust anything the prosecutors do. Investigations of the opposition party are criticized as suppression of the opposition. Investigations of the ruling party will come across as attempts to distract the public or groundwork for a political shakeup.

There’s no chance of first lady Kim Keon-hee or Yoon’s aides being properly investigated. The man holding a knife never turns it on himself. The prosecutors’ rule will continue.

One thing is odd, however. Before a criminal prosecution, suspects can be indicted without being detained, but the prosecutors have been detaining former high-ranking officials.

By the prosecutors’ legal doctrine of abuse of power, every high-ranking public servant in every administration could be put in jail. The same logic could apply to the members of Yoon’s cabinet and to Yoon himself, since the statute of limitations is paused while he’s in office.

But the prosecutors keep bulldozing forward. What’s their rationale?

I think it’s instinct. A hound’s instinct is to go for the jugular and bite down hard.

It’s dangerous to set such a dog loose in public. It needs to be controlled with leashes and muzzles.

Who’s controlling the prosecutors right now? I don’t think anyone is. Ultimately, all the blame for that lies with Yoon himself.

Yoon is a politician. As president, he bears the supreme responsibility for running the government, not running its investigations.

The government is run according to the law and the budget — and the law and the budget are under the authority of the National Assembly.

Yoon will be delivering an address about next year’s budget at the National Assembly on Tuesday.

In his address for the supplementary budget in an extraordinary session of the National Assembly in May, Yoon promised to “closely discuss not only pending legislation and budget bills but also major issues of governance with the National Assembly’s leaders and lawmakers.” That turned out to be a lie.

I wonder what Yoon will say this time. What we need right now is not Yoon the prosecutor, but Yoon the politician, and Yoon the president.

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

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