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Chief prosecutor rebuffs justice minister’s email

May 15,2019
Korea’s top prosecutor on Tuesday issued an implicit new challenge to the government’s plans for judicial reform, casting doubt on the justice minister’s promise a day earlier to take prosecutors’ complaints into account in adjusting powers between law enforcement agencies.

On his way to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office on Tuesday morning, Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il gave his response to an email that Justice Minister Park Sang-ki sent to senior prosecutors nationwide on Monday afternoon regarding a bill to adjust the balance of power between police and prosecutors.

“From what I have gathered through phone briefings, it appears [Park] has not gone to the extent of accepting [prosecutors’ complaints],” Moon said.

Park wrote in his email that the government would work to ensure that “concerns raised by prosecutors regarding certain elements are sufficiently reflected in the bill adjusting the investigative powers [between the police and prosecutors],” listing four primary changes the Justice Ministry wants made to the bill.

These include giving prosecutors the right to launch their own direct investigation into cases independent of prior police probes if new criminal allegations are uncovered, strengthening prosecutors’ authority to supplement police investigations, allowing prosecutors to receive information on cases in which police have closed their primary investigation and reducing the admissibility of suspect interrogation reports. Park wrote that in regard to the changes, a variety of diverse opinions would be considered by the government before it made its decision on the final bill.

The proposal in question is one of a series of judicial reform bills that were fast-tracked at the National Assembly late last month. At their core, they are aimed at reducing the prosecution’s longstanding dominance over Korea’s criminal justice system. Unsurprisingly, the bill, as well as another on the establishment of an independent investigative unit specializing in crime by top government figures, is fiercely opposed by prosecutors, who fear these proposed reforms may make the police too powerful.

Park’s email to leading prosecutors was reportedly crafted in coordination with the Blue House to placate many of the concerns pervasive among prosecutors and convince them to agree to divert some of their monopoly on investigative authority to the police. Yet this attempt at mediation was apparently met with a bitter reception by both the police and prosecution.

In addition to his comment, which analysts say reflects the prosecution’s discontent with the points of compromise, Moon had been scheduled to hold a press conference on Tuesday or Wednesday to clarify his position on the government’s plans. But on Monday evening Moon said “an unexpected incident” forced him to delay the press event to an unspecified later date, an implicit admission that Park’s email pushed him to review his approach to the situation.

Police, for their part, are reportedly unsatisfied with the fact that the reforms do not go far enough. They are particularly concerned about the part of the current bill that maintains they would still be subject to prosecutorial oversight if there is a “valid reason” in certain cases. According to one source in the police, many in the agency are frustrated with Park for being too cautious to give police the right to independently investigate cases.

This growing conflict between the country’s law enforcement agencies forecasts a tumultuous path ahead for the judicial reform bills as they undergo legislative review. While a vote on the floor for the bills is guaranteed by virtue of the fast-track process, police and prosecutors are each engaging in a lobbying campaign to shape the bills in their favor.

On television, radio and social media, lawyers and pundits with ties to either agency are engaging in open debates on the issue. Even the ruling Democratic Party itself is far from united on the details of the bills despite having pushed them onto the fast track after a riotous negotiation process with three minor parties.

Amid this collision course, Park’s attempt at mediation is seen by some analysts as an attempt by the government to pre-emptively silence open opposition from prosecutors, which could pose a serious impediment to the bills’ passage. Some analysts say Moon’s cancellation of his press conference may have come at the request of the Justice Ministry or the Blue House due to fear that his words could spark major resistance by prosecutors.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, PARK TAE-IN [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]


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