Bumbling prosecutorsThe main opposition party’s most prominent candidate for the Seoul mayoral election on June 2 is a former prime minister dogged by suspicions of bribery. In view of the sensitive timing of the charges, prosecutors should have addressed the case with discretion to pin down the exact problem. They should have concentrated on uncovering the truth based on irrefutable evidence, considering the consequences of dealing with a heavyweight politician. But they pushed for a trial recklessly without adequate preparation. As a result, former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook was acquitted.
The Seoul Central District Court, in finding Han not guilty of bribery, said the testimony of the prosecution’s only witness, Kwak Youngwook, former head of Korea Express, lacked consistency, rationality and objectivity. The court discounted Kwak’s testimony that he handed $50,000 to Han.
The court had doubts about the testimony, suspecting the prosecution may have forced it from Kwak. Other circumstantial evidence such as Han’s role in promoting the head of a state-run corporation was ruled out. The prosecution courted disaster by basing its case against Han solely on Kwak’s testimony. Pinning down the exchange of bribes can be difficult, but that alone doesn’t explain the poor execution of the case. Prosecutors say they were fooled by Kwak, but their regrets are too late.
Prosecutors made another misstep by pursuing a separate probe into Han’s involvement in an illegal political slush fund a day before the ruling, spurring an attack by the opposition for attempting to influence the court ahead of the election campaign. Prosecutors said they were opening a second probe on new evidence, but nevertheless the timing was bad. Opening a second case after failing to prove the first is irregular. Prosecutor General Kim Joon-gyu banned such methodology last year, calling it unfair. Lee Hoi-chang, head of the minority opposition Liberty Forward Party, joined the condemnation.
The prosecution’s reputation has again been tainted by its defeat in a bribery case against a leading figure of the Roh Moo hyun administration. A higher court could still overturn the verdict, but the investigation into the alleged slush fund must continue regardless of the bribery verdict, either clearing Han or leading to an indictment if wrongdoing is found. Prosecutors should not seek to retaliate to make up for their defeat in the first trial.
Some say the prosecution has put on a show to help the opposition. The political repercussions are already widespread. It is important for the prosecution to keep to the middle ground as the second trial and new probe coincide with the campaign for Seoul mayor. Politicians should also refrain from capitalizing on the case.