[OUTLOOK]Keep a close eye on the reformersLast Sunday afternoon, a group of rank-and-file prosecutors had a discussion with the president; the justice minister and members of the presidential staff were also present. The discussion, held at the president’s “invitation,” was televised live. Neither group held back; the discussion was a new concept of the new president: “public-participation government.”
Prior to the discussion, the Seoul District Prosecutors Office and other prosecutors from around the country had voiced complaints about the principles of the new personnel policy that the president and the justice minister were trying to implement at the prosecutors’ office. After the discussion, the prosecutor general resigned.
The president’s reason for holding the discussion was a welcome one, but the meeting left concern and perplexity in the minds of people who watched it.
The setting was casual, all the more reason for the participants to be careful of their manners. But the crude language that some of the prosecutors directed toward their president, their petty personal attacks using inappropriate analogies and the plain rudeness of the young and overly bold were all bad signs of the present state of our society. The hurried lectures by the president and the dueling of the justice minster with these enfants terribles were also largely inappropriate and as perilous as the behavior of the prosecutors. With the retreat of a vertical authoritative society and the dawn of the new horizontal democratic society, we desperately need to think about everyday manners and the degree of personal control we need.
The style of the discussants was only part of the problem. For example, what if the president’s reform plan is really just a plan to get rid of uncooperative officials to make way for his own loyalists? For those who know our history, the thought cannot be quickly dispelled. All presidents have promised a politically neutral prosecutors’ office and the prosecutors have always promised fair implementation of the law, but the results were always the same.
As wrong as the prosecutors’ willingness to bow to power is a president’s ambition to mobilize the prosecutors as his political private guard. There are numerous examples of how presidents tried to make the prosecutors-general their followers. In the past, the justice minister and the presidential adviser for civil affairs were also from the prosecutors’ office, making our country a “Republic of Prosecutors.” The monopoly on investigations, the tendency to close ranks against outsiders and the strict hierarchy in the organization made the prosecutors an ideal strike force for the president. Protests from the relatively clean lower-ranking prosecutors sounded convincing.
The majority of the prosecutors still deserve our trust. Despite their clumsiness, the rank-and-file have reason to be concerned.
The problem of whether changes in personnel or reforms in the system should come first is worth discussing. But the prosecutors on television sounded less than convincing. If they had so desperately wanted a personnel committee that included outsiders, why didn’t they demand one before now instead of complaining about outside participation in personnel matters on the grounds of independence? Perhaps they are more angry about an outsider heading the justice ministry, which they have considered as their turf. There are grounds for apprehension about whether their protests come not from conviction and a sense of duty but from a desire for an all-powerful prosecution, free from both political influence and the people’s will.
The president has the right to implement appropriate changes that are needed to stamp the administration with his beliefs. The president should introduce a personnel policy suitable for a “democratic prosecution” as he has promised. The prosecutors should show an attitude of self-reform before championing the independence of the office if they want to win the support of the people. The justice minister and the president should acknowledge and accept the prosecutors’ self-sacrifice and loyalty to the people, as one prosecutor pleaded. Only then will the real owners of the nation, the people, rest easily. Appointing the right personnel and reforming the system are both important, but putting good people in office comes first.
* The writer is a professor of law at Seoul National University.
by Ahn Kyong-whan
More in Columns
With Lee behind bars
No gray zone anymore
Clues on Biden’s foreign policy
Losing the vaccine race
The problem is internal division