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More reform plans are revealed

Justice Ministry mulls stripping prosecution’s internal audit authority

Oct 08,2019
The Ministry of Justice is planning to take away the prosecution’s power to conduct preliminary inspections on suspected misconduct and ethical breaches committed by prosecutors as a part of its prosecutorial reform campaign, ministry sources told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday.

The judicial and prosecutorial reform committee of the Justice Ministry, launched last week by Justice Minister Cho Kuk, plans to withdraw the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office’s power to conduct primary inspections over the prosecution, effectively ending the long-held practice that prosecutors are inspected by prosecutors, the sources said. The ministry will take over the authority and inspect prosecutors after the change, they said.

The reform committee also plans to end the dispatch of prosecutors to the Justice Ministry’s inspection office. As of now, the ministry’s chief inspector is a former senior official of the Board of Audit and Inspection, but the majority of work is being done by prosecutors. The ministry is considering sending them back to their home offices early next year, the sources said.

The ministry also plans to appoint a non-prosecutor to head the Inspection Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, according to the sources.

“The current system allows prosecutors to conduct internal inspections into prosecutors,” a member on the reform committee told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday. “It can trigger unnecessary misunderstanding that the prosecution is protecting its own members. We will discuss a plan to more substantially exercise the Justice Ministry’s authorities to scrutinize the prosecution.”

Other members on the committee also confirmed that the ministry is mulling those plans.

The reform plans were unveiled as conflict between Cho and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl escalated in recent weeks. The prosecution has announced its own reform measures to defy public criticism that it is resisting the changes being forced by Cho and his reform committee.

Appointed by President Moon Jae-in last month to push forward the reform of the state prosecution agency, Cho launched the 16-member committee on Sept. 30 and named Kim Nam-joon, a progressive lawyer, as its chairman. Kim had served as the deputy head of a liberal advocacy group, Lawyers for a Democratic Society, and as a member of Moon’s presidential campaign. The committee includes incumbent prosecutors and investigators as well as professors and lawyers.

Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday that the committee members will discuss the changes concerning inspections of the prosecution and other reform measures later in the afternoon and prioritize them.

“We have not made a final conclusion,” he said. “We will create a recommendation to the minister after the meeting.”

Lawyer Lee Tahney, a member on the committee, said last week that the ministry will consider overhauling the current inspection system of the prosecution.

“Judges and prosecutors must not submit to collective interests of their own and unfair directives,” Lee wrote on his Facebook post on Friday. “In order to thoroughly and sternly hold prosecutors accountable for their legal violations and ethical breaches, the reform committee will discuss changes of the current inspection system.”

Last month, Cho also gave an order that the ministry must actively exercise its authority to inspect the prosecution. He made the directives on Sept. 11 during a meeting with senior officials.

The prosecution is angry about these plans pushed forward by Cho and the reform committee and say the ministry’s inspection over the prosecutors could jeopardize the integrity of investigations.

“The prosecution was given the power for internal inspections over prosecutors in order to protect the integrity of investigations,” a lawyer who was in charge of supervising inspection operations at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said. “There have been concerns that the Ministry of Justice’s active exercise of the inspection authority over the prosecution would obstruct the prosecutors’ probes into powerful figures.”

Others said the timing is inappropriate, because the prosecution is currently conducting investigations into the suspected crimes committed by Cho’s family.

“Prosecutors are the most sensitive about inspections and appointments,” said a former senior prosecutor, currently practicing as a lawyer. “A close associate of the president was appointed as the justice minister, and the ministry is now planning to conduct inspections over the prosecution. That makes the prosecutors really uncomfortable.”

Meanwhile, Prosecutor General Yoon urged the senior prosecutors on Monday for a bold, proactive reform.

“We must check the entire operation of the prosecution and make bold improvements on how we exercise prosecutorial powers, conduct investigations and maintain internal culture,” Yoon was quoted as saying during a meeting of the senior members of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. “We must boldly and proactively reform within the scope of the constitution, using the perspective of the people.”

Following Yoon’s directives, the prosecution announced Monday that it will stop questioning witnesses and suspects after 9 p.m.

It was the third reform measure announced by the prosecution, following the first two announcements last week. On Oct. 1, the prosecution said it will shut down special investigation departments, responsible for high-profile, often political, cases at nationwide prosecutors’ offices, except for three key units. The prosecution also announced Friday that it will stop informing the media in advance about the summoning of suspects and witnesses.

Yoon’s directives on Monday were given only 30 minutes after Cho told the media that he will push forward a harsh reform of the prosecution from the perspective of the people. “The Justice Ministry and the prosecution must not exist to serve its own organizations and the judicial cartel,” Cho also said.

While Yoon and Cho both promised to reform the prosecution, their confrontation is actually intensifying.

“While his family is being investigated, Cho is trying to maintain his title as the minister by stressing that he is the best person to reform the prosecution,” a lawyer who once served as a head of a district prosecution said. “The prosecution, however, is presenting self-reform measures to defy Cho’s justification.”

Although Yoon presented a series of self-reform measures, Cho and the Justice Ministry did not welcome them. The Justice Ministry is on the upper chain of command of the prosecution, and Yoon must not unilaterally make a decision and announce it, the ministry officials said. “Instead of making an announcement, the prosecution must submit the reform plans to the ministry,” an official said.

Prosecutors, however, complain that the ministry’s position is against President Moon’s directives issued to Yoon on Sept. 30 that the prosecution must act independently for reform.

“The prosecution wants to make clear that the probes into Cho and his family are not to obstruct his reform measures,” a Supreme Prosecutors’ Office official said. “We are pushing forward reforms from the perspective of the people.”

BY PARK TAE-IN, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]


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