[Column] Prosecutorial reform is the zeitgeist that Yoon Seok-youl cannot stop

Posted on : 2020-12-21 17:37 KST Modified on : 2020-12-21 17:37 KST
No matter who the president is in 2022, the current course of reform cannot be reversed
Seong Han-yong
Seong Han-yong

By Seong Han-yong, senior editorial writer

On Dec. 22, a South Korean court will be holding a hearing to decide whether to issue an injunction against the two-month suspension given to Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl by a disciplinary panel. If the court issues that injunction, Yoon will be reinstated to his position immediately. If not, Yoon’s main lawsuit asking for the reversal of the disciplinary measures will continue during his suspension.

Is there any chance that Yoon will step down from his position as prosecutor general of his own accord? Shortly after the disciplinary board announced its decision, Yoon declared that he would “rectify this wrong according to the procedures outlined in the constitution and the law.” He seems to think that his resignation would signify that the prosecution service is surrendering to the forces of reform and that the prosecutors won’t be able to investigate “the powers that be” in the future.

But there’s one thing that Yoon seems to be mistaken about — namely, his conviction that he has to keep fighting if the prosecution service is to maintain its political neutrality and independence.

Yoon’s position has absolutely no connection with the prosecutorial reform that’s being pursued by the Moon Jae-in administration. While the disciplinary measures against Yoon coincided with the bickering over launching the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO), that was merely a coincidence, and there’s no causal relationship between the two issues.

Following the launch of the CIO, the ruling Democratic Party is planning to work on the second stage of prosecutorial reform, which will lead to the complete separation of criminal investigations and indictments. Prosecutorial reform is focused not on people, but on institutions.

Whether or not a court allows Yoon to return to his duties as prosecutor general, and whether or not he resigns from that post, we can expect that the prosecutorial reform supported by the Moon administration and the Democratic Party will proceed methodically on its preordained course.

Moon pledged during the 2017 election to establish an office to investigate corruption by high-ranking officials with the goal of ending political influence on prosecutors’ investigations and to separate the powers of investigation and indictment so as to establish institutional checks and balances between the police and the prosecutors. He also said that the prosecutors, in addition to their power of indictment, would retain the ability to carry out secondary and supplemental investigations while filing charges and prosecuting their cases. Such changes would leave the prosecutors without the authority to carry out or direct investigations.

All other presidential hopefuls have pledged some form of prosecutorial reform

Without exception, other political candidates pledged the same heavy-duty reform of the prosecution service. Hong Joon-pyo, the main conservative candidate, said he would recognize the police and prosecution services as having equal authority for investigations and create a system in which they could check each other. He promised to eliminate political meddling by the prosecution service and amend the constitution so that the police would be empowered to request warrants. Hong also said he would give special inspectors more authority to crack down on corruption among those close to the president.

The other three major presidential hopefuls — Ahn Cheol-soo, Yoo Seong-min and Sim Sang-jung — all promised to set up an office to investigate corruption by high-ranking officials. In addition, Ahn said he would tighten controls on prosecutors’ arbitrary exercise of the power of indictment, Yoo said he would split up the prosecutors’ powers of investigation and indictment and set up a separate office to handle investigations, and Sim said she would adjust the police and prosecutors’ authority for conducting investigations.

All five of these candidates made comparable pledges, demonstrating that prosecutorial reform has become the zeitgeist in South Korea.

This zeitgeist is the result of the disturbing history of the country’s prosecution service. When Korea was ruled by authoritarian dictators, prosecutors in the public security department looked the other way when the police and the Agency for National Security Planning (the forerunner of today’s National Intelligence Service) treated suspects with brutality. Prosecutors in the special investigations department weren’t ashamed to launch investigations on orders from the Blue House’s senior secretary of civil affairs or the National Police Agency.

In fact, the prosecutors stooped to all kinds of unsavory business to curry favor with the regime. They hammered down on price-gouging, which was dubbed a criminal infringement of people’s livelihood. They jailed the heads of ramen manufacturers, claiming they’d made ramen with industrial beef tallow. They even cracked down on nightlife establishments that employed minors as part of a campaign to keep kids in school.

The prosecutors were the administration’s faithful lackeys. “We’re dogs, and we bite when we’re told,” some prosecutors lamented.

The mood gradually shifted after the progressives took over in December 1997. Presidents serve a five-year term, but the prosecutors’ authority has no end point. The prosecutors’ have mastered a neat trick for maintaining their invincible power: whenever a new president comes to power, they investigate corruption in the previous administration and only later take aim at the incumbent.

As time has passed, the power of the prosecution service has begun to overshadow that of the ruling party. This very moment is when the prosecutors’ power seems to be at its peak. But a peak is also the starting point of our journey down the mountain.

Is it possible that the opposition candidates who end up on the ballot for president in Mar. 9, 2022, could pledge to close the CIO and restore the original disposition of the police and prosecutors’ investigative authority? No, it’s not possible. Prosecutorial reform has gotten underway, and no one can reverse its course now.

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

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