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Roh stands ground on reforms

Prosecutors chief resigns after tough TV dialogue

Mar 10,2003
President Roh Moo-hyun yesterday stood by his justice minister and the president’s “inherent powers of appointment” in a nearly two-hour debate yesterday that visibly illustrated the mistrust between the new administration and the holdover prosecutors office.
“We will go ahead with the reshuffle of the prosecution leadership as prepared by me and the justice minister,” President Roh said.
Several hours later, the prosecutor-general, Kim Kak-young, tendered his resignation.
The debate was Mr. Roh’s intervention to calm the rift between Justice Minister Kang Gum-sil and the prosecution over appointment of senior prosecutors.
Ms. Kang had announced plans to promote four junior prosecutors over their seniors, ruffling feelings in the tradition-bound department. The appointments are expected to go ahead today, and a second round is scheduled for March 17.
Mr. Roh agreed to meet halfway on demands by the junior prosecutors that a new committee be set up to recommend candidates for promotion, and to transfer the power to appoint the prosecution leadership from the justice minister to the prosecutor-general.
“I will hear opinions from various sectors and then form a new selection committee,” Mr. Roh said. But, he added, “I cannot accept the prosecution’s demand to turn over the power that was installed to check the prosecution.”
Ten prosecutors spoke with Mr. Roh and Ms. Kang during the discussion, which began at 2 p.m. at the government complex in Sejongno, downtown Seoul.
The dialogue, which was convened at the president’s behest, was televised nationally and highlighted by sharply clashing views. Viewers got a glimpse of a president known for his debating skills, and saw the younger generation of prosecutors agreeing on the need for reform, but pleading for a guarantee of prosecution independence, as well as job security under a reform-oriented president.
Mr. Roh’s performance at times turned fiery.
“The prosecution’s request for a change in the system prior to the reshuffle means that the incumbent leadership will have to continue in office, which I cannot accept,” he said, adding “I do not believe the incumbent leadership” will carry out the reform he espouses.
The justice minister defended her promotion decisions, saying “I could not accept the prosecutor-general’s recommendations for the district prosecutors offices because these men have previously been suspected of playing politics or of using torture in cases under their leadership.”
Prosecutors spoke just as unflinchingly.
“We cannot but doubt whether the ‘participatory government’ is willing to ensure the prosecution’s neutrality,” said Kim Young-jong, a prosecutor with the Suwon District Prosecutors Office as he spoke on behalf of the prosecutors present. “This reshuffle blueprint recalls the closed-doors appointments [of previous administrations], and deepens the political subordination of the prosecution.”
Lee Seok-whan, a prosecutor who identified himself as a team member working on the SK Corp. case, said, “We have received pressure from senior government officials and heavyweight politicians. Some have even threatened that we ‘could get hurt.’
“Prosecutors need systematic protection from these pressures,” Mr. Lee said.
The uproar and disputation had been expected. Both Mr. Roh and Ms. Kang have reiterated that they intend to reform the prosecution.
The departing prosecutor-general, Mr. Kim, passed the 12th bar exam. His colleagues from that year through the 16th bar exam are expected to retire as they are leapfrogged by younger prosecutors. Sources said that only four from the 14th class will be appointed to the High Prosecutors Office.
The uproar was triggered late Thursday night when the justice minister delivered a promotion list to the prosecutor-general, in a break from past practice under which the two would consult before coming out with a draft.
But the seeds of discontent began with the appointment as justice minister of Ms. Kang, a product of the 23d national bar exam, which makes her 11 years junior to Mr. Kim.
That protest would ensue was predictable, but the heat of the complaints was not forecast.
Blue House insiders said that Mr. Roh took on the television debate with the prosecutors because he considered their protest a direct challenge launched over the justice minister’s head at himself.
Throughout yesterday’s dialogue, the prosecutors paid tribute to Mr. Roh’s debate skills, only to be put down sarcastically by him. The president often responded vociferously to the prosecutors’ comments and questions, which he later described as “more than courageous.”
When one prosecutor described as a fact lobbying activities that have been alleged against Mr. Roh’s elder brother, Mr. Roh flared up, objecting to the word “guileless” to describe his brother’s actions, which he said had been induced by a reporter’s question.
Observers noted Mr. Roh’s style of mediating conflicting interests by firmly stating his own position and then leaving room to reflect the interests of other parties ― a style he described in his autobiography.
But others wondered whether Mr. Roh would continue to use the direct intervention route for future conflicts, and how effective it would continue to be.


by Kim Ji-soo


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