Powerful probe unit is wound down
At 3 p.m. on the 10th floor of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, about 30 former and incumbent officials of the prosecution - including Prosecutor General Chae Dong-wook and Park Young-soo, former chief of the unit - gathered to watch its signboard being removed from its main door.
“I think today is one of the biggest moments in the prosecution’s history,” said Park, “and also a day of promise of a new prosecution dedicated to reform.” Park is now a private attorney and actually opposed the shutting of the elite unit.
“There were many external influences when I was chief and running investigations into Hyundai Motor, Lone Star and Kim Woo-joong, former chairman of Daewoo Group,” he said. “Without the unit, the prosecution might have not overcome all barriers when managing such cases in the past.”
A central investigation bureau was created on Dec. 20, 1949 under the name Central Investigation Agency. It was changed to Special Investigation Bureau in 1973 and eventually the Central Investigation Unit in 1981.
The agency has been at the center of some of Korea’s central historical turning points.
In 1995, it found that former President Roh Tae-woo received 450 billion won ($401 million) in bribes from chaebol during his term and also found that Jeong Tae-soo, Hanbo Group chairman, gave large sums of kickbacks to politicians in order to get 5.7 trillion won in loans from banks in 1997.
But the unit has been equally controversial for not investigating well and for succumbing to political pressure. In 2009, former President Roh Moo-hyun fatally jumped off a cliff while the unit was investigating his wife and aides for taking bribes from Park Yeon-cha, former chairman of Taekwang Industrial. After the death, prosecutors dropped the case, saying they would no longer investigate and would instead bury the details in a sealed archive.
Between 2011 and 2012, the unit investigated the Busan Savings Bank Group for trillions of won in illegal loans accounting fraud and buying influence from politicians. But its investigation was feeble and depositors lost their savings when the group was shut down.Several prosecutors were also accused of irregularities. Kim Gwang-jun, a senior prosecutor of the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office, was indicted in December for taking more than 1 billion won in bribes from corporate officials, and a 30-year-old prosecutor surnamed Jeon was indicted in December for allegedly having sex with a suspect he was investigating in a theft case.
President Park promised to reform the prosecution during the December election campaign and the closing of the unit was a key part of that reform.
The prosecution said it has formed a task force to reform its special investigation system by the end of May. Oh Se-in, a senior researcher of the Institute of Justice, was appointed chief of the team and other members are Lee Dong-ryeol, a Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office prosecutor; Lee Du-bong, a senior prosecutor of Daegu District Prosecutors’ Office; and Cho Sang-jun, chief of the international criminal division of the Ministry of Justice.
By Lee Dong-hyun, Kwon Sang-soo [firstname.lastname@example.org]