Breaking barriers in the name of lawEarly this year, Kang Geum-sil became Korea’s first woman justice minister. Beginning with her nomination, her rise to the country’s top legal job has dominated the headlines. The selection of Ms. Kang defied the old rules of government appointment, especially in the legal sector where seniority reigns and where pecking order ― based largely on the year one passes the national bar exam ― plays an equally important role. Just when the hoopla surrounding her appointment had calmed, her outspoken stance against strikes, such as the Korea Railway Union’s, returned her to the spotlight. The JoongAng Ilbo spoke with the minister about her private life, her philosophy on collective activities and her vision for reforming the nation’s prosecution service.
During a recent strike by the Railway Workers Union, Justice Minister Kang Geum-sil argued for a strong government stance amid the voices of some leading officials who opted for a softer one. Ms. Kang stressed that her decision was based on a simple principle:
“In order [for Korea] to become a truly well-developed and advanced society, the community has to be law-abiding no matter what,” the minister said. “Everyone has to uphold the law and those who don’t will face appropriate punishment.” She added that the union strike had the potential to severely impair the economy, so using public power was the only appropriate choice at the time.
Nevertheless, she also apologized on behalf of the government, saying it did not provide an appropriate framework from which union leaders and management could iron out their differences more smoothly. She then emphasized that the use of public power should be restricted to cases where all possible means of achieving a peaceful resolution between management and union had been exhausted and the nation’s economy was at stake.
The minister addressed a range of other widely publicized issues, from Hanchongryun, the illegal radical student organization, to the cash-for-summit scandal, in which a historic visit by former President Kim Dae-jung to North Korea in the summer of 2000 was allegedly secured by a cash transfer of $500 million.
Regarding the student group, the minister hinted that discussions are under way on whether to lift Hanchongryun members’ criminal status, but that the matter of legalizing the student group was a complicated one.
On the cash-for-summit deal, the minister argued that no special prosecution should be called for the case; rather, she felt the National Assembly should handle the bulk of the investigation while Justice Ministry prosecutors could handle matters that required more digging.
When legislators approved a special prosecution team to handle the case, Ms. Kang agreed to an extension of the investigation, in line with the Grand National Party’s position, after initially opposing any special prosecution team. In both cases, her opinion was at odds with President Roh Moo-hyun’s.
“Well, in the end it looked like that, but I still think my actions weren’t that much different from what President Roh had in mind,” the minister said.
“President Roh agreed to a special prosecution assuming that both the ruling party and the opposition party would agree on the scope of the investigation. I thought that the National Assembly should have taken the bulk of the investigation while subsidiary investigations should be handled by the prosecution.”
The minister pointed out that a limited scope was what both she and the president thought was appropriate. She then argued for extending the investigation, but the president rejected the idea. Ms. Kang said she thought that once the special probe had begun it should serve to close the matter for good.
Within her own agency, the minister looks to utilize a multi-level evaluation system to help uncover hidden gems among the army of prosecutors and streamline the overall promotional system at the Justice Ministry. The ministry will also increase the number of outside panels judging potential candidates, Ms. Kang said. “The promotion process will be a totally independent one where nothing matters but the ability of the candidate.”
Last month, when the nation’s chief public prosecutors met with the president at the Blue House, the JoongAng Ilbo suggested that the move could be viewed as a gesture by the Blue House to gain influence over the prosecution.
The minister disagreed with that notion, pointing out the president was only trying to explain policy direction regarding illegal collective activity and did not intend to meddle with the process of investigations.
“I think since it’s the president who hands out the jobs, he has the right to see these people. On the other hand it is necessary for these people to directly hear the president’s thoughts,” said the minister.
The minister counts the promotion that she conducted among the prosecutors as the most memorable event since being appointed. “The president chose me to change some of the negative aspects inside the prosecution,” Ms. Kang said.
“The influence of political clout on the prosecution and promotions influenced by politics are things that he wants to get rid off. I guess at the time, the prosecution may have thought that another political force was doing its thing but I think that perception has been resolved now.”
Legal mind has dancing legs
The JoongAng Ilbo’s interview with the minister took place on Monday around 1:30 p.m. at a coffee shop in southern Seoul. Questions ranging from the special investigation of the alleged cash transfer to North Korea to personal questions about her private life all seemed to fit into her comfort range, as the minister’s attitude was candid and straightforward throughout the interview.
Ms. Kang began to protest only when the topic of some newspaper articles that dealt with e-mails she had sent to prosecutors came up.
She did not deny that she is a talented dancer. Ms. Kang explained that the philosophy of law and traditional Korean culture had many things in common, as both are centered around the love of people and human well-being.
“Before I turned 40, I seriously considered a career in professional dancing,” the minister said. In 1985, when she served as a Family Court judge, she opted to learn seungmu, a traditional Korean dance performed at Buddhist temples.
She continues to take lessons to refine her dancing skills, and has altogether piled up more than six years of serious dance immersion. She is a student of Kim Su-hak, who is known as the master of the salpulie dance, a traditional Korean dance thought to have originated in Jinju, South Gyeongsang province.
While in college, she belonged to a club dedicated to gaining insight into Korean classical music.
Describing herself as a movie buff, Ms. Kang ranked the “Matrix” series high up on her list of favorites. But it wasn’t only for entertainment: She viewed the first installment of the series 10 times in English without subtitles just to improve her language skills.
The minister, 46, is divorced and has no children. She prefers business suits; she finds them comfortable to work in. At home, she swings the hula hoop around her hips to stay in shape whenever time permits it.
by Shin Sung-ho
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