[VIEWPOINT]Reform Plans Need Ethical Foundation

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[VIEWPOINT]Reform Plans Need Ethical Foundation

The stock fraud and embezzlement case, the so-called "Lee Yong-ho-gate," is an unvarnished example of a core reality about the status of law in our society.

This fraud involves regional ties, kinship and school relations, and the breaking of laws and universal norms. Amid widespread suspicion that political figures were involved in the fraud, the prosecutors office also seems to have become entangled in the matter. Furthermore, people with a gangster background are linked to the fraud. Regional and blood connections, illegality and violence - all the elements that interfere with the rule of law - are blended together.

Many of our society's ills stem from the fact that the rule of law has not yet been established here. How can we help it advance? One problem is that connections and ties based on blood, marriage or regional background are strong, and illegally taking advantage of them gives immediate benefits. If people feel guilty after doing illegal things, perhaps there is hope for improvement. The biggest barrier to imposing the rule of law is the unfairness of law enforcement.

The common perception that the law favors the wealthy and the powerful tends to make people try to get away with their own illegalities. Such a reaction is often reflected in the results of research on Korean perceptions of the law. People distrust law enforcement, observing that laws do not always have to be obeyed. A survey last December asked people to react to the statement, "People who have lots of money and political power tend not to be punished for breaking the law." Forty-six percent said, "Definitely true," and 49 percent answered, "Mostly true." Over 95 percent of the respondents did not believe the law was implemented fairly. In addition, nearly three quarters of the interviewees agreed with the statement, "I can get away with breaking laws." Koreans have an opportunistic view of the law.

The solution is both easy and difficult. Koreans will change their view of the law if it is enforced fairly. This puts a real burden on the courts and the prosecution - especially the prosecutors. The Ministry of Justice disclosed its reform plan for the prosecutors office at the same time it set up a special audit panel for the Lee Yong-ho investigation. In particular, the plan proposes that junior prosecutors can object to unfair orders by senior prosecutors; that would end the tradition of blind conformance to seniors' orders.

Abolishing a rule that requires approval by the justice minister or prosecutor general before arresting high-ranking officials is also an important change.

The expansion of provisions for citizens to petition courts to name an independent lawyer to take over when state prosecutors decide not to indict government officials suspected of crimes has long been supported as a way to force prosecutors to do their jobs. The prosecutors office is still blocking a system of independent counsels when investigations break down.

Despite the problems, we should not underevaluate the prosecution's self-reform plans. It is interesting to watch the step-by-step reforms forced by the string of scandals.

Reform of the prosecution system is important. We should not overlook, however, that the essence of our task to reform the prosecutors office is to make it politically neutral. The most fundamental obstacle to neutrality lies in impartial personnel management. The structure of the prosecutors office is hierarchical, and it is natural that everyone wants a higher position. But behind personnel management is political power.

Political power always tries to make the prosecutors office its instrument. While politicians have influence over promotions, it is difficult for the office to fight off temptation from those in power, regardless of the system or the rules in place. The problem is one of ethics. Are prosecutors more interested in climbing the promotion ladder, whether or not their office is continually being disgraced by scandals? If not, are they going to make the prosecutors office one where it is considered honorable to work? The reformation of the prosecutors office and whether the rule of law can succeed or not after reforms are implemented depends on this choice.


The writer is a professor of law at Hanyang University.

by Yang Kun

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