[Column] Prosecutor general, steer clear of politics

Posted on : 2021-03-09 17:03 KST Modified on : 2021-03-09 17:03 KST
Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl shakes hands with the prosecution employees as he leaves the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul after announcing his resignation Thursday. (pool photo)
Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl shakes hands with the prosecution employees as he leaves the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul after announcing his resignation Thursday. (pool photo)

Did Yoon Seok-youl resign from his post as South Korea’s prosecutor general because the ruling party was moving to divest the prosecution service of its investigative powers completely? Or did he resign because he wants to run in the next presidential election, which will be held on Mar. 9, 2022?

It’s a silly question. Resisting the prosecutors’ loss of investigative powers is the pretext; running for president is the goal. It’s a fact of life that pretexts and goals can’t always be teased apart.

Typically, people proclaim the pretext and pursue the goal. For politicians, patriotism is the pretext, and electoral victory is the goal. But it’s impossible for the two to be clearly distinguished.

There’s also the issue of timing. Yoon’s resignation as prosecutor general is in the past, and his potential run for president is in the future. If he doesn’t run for president, his pretext will come into focus; if he does run, his pretext will fade away.

There’s a thought experiment in quantum mechanics called Schrödinger’s cat. The cat, which we imagine to be inside a box, is neither alive nor dead until we open the box to check on it. Both the living cat and dead cat coexist in a state of potentiality.

The same can be said about Yoon’s current situation. He could be the hero of the prosecutors in the special investigations department, sacrificing himself to protect the investigative power of the prosecution service. But he could also be a shameless man who trampled on the honor of the prosecution service as a whole in order to satisfy his own political ambitions.

Given Yoon’s years of experience as a prosecutor in the special investigations department, what has inspired his current flirtation with politics?

The first reason is Yoon’s position in public opinion polls. During Yoon’s clashes first with Cho Kook in 2019 and then with Choo Mi-ae in 2020 (both former justice ministers), people who dislike current President Moon Jae-in began to promote Yoon as a potential candidate for president.

Even otherwise sensible people lose their heads when they rise in the polls. That’s what happened to Ahn Cheol-soo, who took part in a lecture series for young people in 2011.

Other examples are former Prime Minister Goh Kun and former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But both Goh and Ban came to their senses and gave up unrealistic ambitions.

The second reason is Yoon’s experience with investigations. Prosecutors in the special investigations department know how to frame a narrative. If they can convince the public that the defendant is a villain when requesting a warrant for their detention and releasing interim investigation results, they’ve achieved a kind of victory.

Getting a conviction in the actual trial is just the icing on the cake; it doesn’t bother the prosecutors too much if the defendant is acquitted. They simply say that they couldn’t make the charges stick because the defendant committed an innovative and unconventional crime.

In the sense that prosecutors build a narrative to knock down their opponents, they’re similar to politicians running in an election.

But Yoon shouldn’t go into politics, and he shouldn’t try to become a frontrunner in the presidential election. There are two reasons for that.

First, he can’t do a good job. The central pillars of statecraft are economics and foreign policy. A person with no experience in politics or governance shouldn’t become president. What does Yoon know about economics or foreign policy?

In a country rife with corruption, a former prosecutor general might be needed as president. But South Korea isn’t that kind of country. The crime rate here is markedly lower than in other advanced economies.

Second, Yoon has no chance of becoming president. His current standing in the polls reflects nothing more than the frustration of voters fed up with Moon Jae-in. In short, it’s a mirage. If Yoon takes the polls at face value, he’s in for a shock.

When someone runs for president, they find themselves obliged to express exactly why they should be elected and what they mean to do if they are elected. Running for president without an answer for either of those questions is tantamount to fraud. Voters are no fools.

During a parliamentary audit in October 2020, Yoon said he would “take time to think about how he could serve the Korean public and society after leaving office.”

Here’s a good idea. He could take advantage of the experience he’s accumulated during his career in special investigations to improve the anti-corruption capabilities of Korea’s investigative bodies. That would earn him respect for the rest of his life.

Kim Woong, a lawmaker with the People Power Party and a onetime junior colleague of Yoon’s in the prosecution service, offered a riposte to “government lackeys” who have criticized Yoon’s resignation as a “political move.”

“Is it a political move to step down while resisting the government? That would imply that the six martyred ministers also made a political move,” Kim said, referring to ministers during the Joseon Dynasty who plotted against King Sejo, who had usurped power in a coup.

“Even if Yoon Seok-youl disappears, we still have thousands of prosecutors and judges. May his sacred position burn like a spark for the spirit of the constitution and democracy,” Kim urged.

The person who ought to pounder Kim’s remarks is none other than Yoon himself. Surely he doesn’t mean to humiliate all those junior prosecutors with his delusions about slaying dragons at the pinnacle of power!

Seong Han-yong
Seong Han-yong

Seong Han-yong, senior editorial writer

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

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