[INSIGHT]Prosecutors’ travail and nobilityJust three days before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, there was a startling leadership change at the prosecution. Prosecutor-general Kim Ik-jin was unexpectedly demoted to the chief of the Seoul High Prosecutors Office. What happened? Kim Tae-seon, chief of the capital police agency, reportedly had taken Roh Deok-sul, head of the inspection department of the agency, under his wing. Mr. Roh was being sought by a prosecution team which was commissioned to arrest and indict Japanese collaborators during the colonial period. Prosecutor-general Kim ordered the police chief arrested on charges of sheltering a criminal. The police chief was a powerful man who could meet President Syngman Rhee at any time; he asked President Rhee to dismiss the prosecutor-general. The justice minister then advised the prosecutor-general to resign, but he didn’t accept the advice, saying, “The justice minister is the breakwater for prosecutors. You should ward off illegal outside pressure.” As a last resort, the justice minister demoted the prosecutor-general to the chief of the Seoul High Prosecutors Office.
The prosecutor’s woes didn’t end there. In 1952, a fierce political fight broke out at the interim capital of Busan. President Rhee mobilized policemen and soldiers to block dissident lawmakers from entering the National Assembly and passed a hand-crafted amendment bill to the Constitution, designed to get him reelected. Kim Ik-jin was quoted as having made complaints about politics. He was arrested on a charge of involvement in an attempt to assassinate President Syngman Rhee and then was dismissed by the disciplinary committee of the prosecution.
Two months later he was acquitted and set free. Though he started a law office, he finished his distressed life in 1970 with loss of eyesight induced by mental shock and malnutrition. Professor Kim Jeung-han, who used to be dean at the law school of Seoul National University, is his eldest son.
Why do I tell this 50-year-old stale story? This story can tell us why the present prosecutors became politically influenced and how much the independence of the prosecution is important.
Political power cannot stand by itself. Sometimes it mobilizes the military, a strong organized force. Sometimes it makes a tool of powerful agencies such as the prosecution and intelligence service through personnel appointments, which legitimizes its grip on these agencies. Kim Ik-jin was the first case in which political power made a tool of the prosecutors by demoting seniors under juniors or promoting juniors over seniors. Kim Ik-jin was staunch enough to stand up against resignation pressure and the society at the time admitted the staunchness.
In 1981, in the initial stage of the Chun Doo Hwan authoritarian regime, low-quality coal briquettes angered the people. A special investigative department of the Seoul District Prosecutors Office took the case and involved manufacturers were arrested in droves. President Chun extolled the prosecutors to the skies and encouraged them to continue the task. But public opinion began to believe that the economy would be ruined if the investigation went on during the difficult economic situation, and President Chun demoted the head of the Seoul District Prosecutors Office and all the investigative team members.
The prosecutor-general was sacked in 1982 after the public leaned toward the belief that an investigation announcement by the prosecution might have concealed and manipulated a large financial fraud involving the former intelligence service deputy chief, Lee Cheol-hi, and his wife, Chang Yeong-ja. Eleven senior prosecutors were expelled after a bill to reveal the assets of senior government officials was enacted during the Kim Young-sam administration (1993-1998). President Kim Dae-jung appointed Kim Tae-jung, who passed the 4th national bar examination, as the justice minister and Park Sun-yong, who passed the 8th national bar examination, as the prosecutor-general. As a result, 13 senior prosecutors between the 4th and 8th classes resigned at a time. By making illuse of the prosecutors’ practice that respects a top-down order bas-ed on seniority and hierarchy, political power subjugated the prosecution into a political tool.
President Roh Moo-hyun shook the prosecutors once more by promoting juniors over seniors. But there is one new sign different from the past. It is that the goal of the personnel shake-up is not subjugating, but neutralizing the prosecution. Fortunately the prosecutors reportedly regard the new prosecutor-general designate as a good choice.
Recently President Roh made some good remarks. “I’ll not be indebted to the prosecution.” “The Blue House and the National Intelligence Service will never meet at the back door.” “I’ll keep up tension with the press.” These are his most ear-catching remarks. President Roh also made a promise to institutionalize a fair personnel committee for the independence and neutrality of the prosecution without sponging off the prosecution. His remarks can be construed as promises that he will not read digging-out reports of the central intelligence agency and will prevent the agency from meddling in domestic politics. He also expressed a strong will to confront false media report without asking favors or taking measures to win the press. If President Roh keeps these promises, he can write a new chapter of Korean politics.
In order to prevent presidential promises from turning out to be empty talks, President Roh should iron out a concrete device to politically neutralize the prosecution. To prove his intention to make the prosecution independent of political power, he should elucidate distinct job descriptions of the justice ministry and the prosecution and create institutional devices for fair and autonomous personnel appointments through a personnel council of the prosecutors.
The prosecutors also should be staunch enough to keep their integrity and morality, like Kim Ik-jin, even if they are demoted. In that case, political power cannot overpower the prosecutors.
* The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kwon Young-bin