Living by the swordThe state’s prosecutors are licensed to draw and wield the sword. Its blade is capable of slaying people. Witnesses and suspects in occasional cases sometimes don’t even make it to trial. They can die during interrogation. Former President Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Mong-hun, head of one of the country’s largest conglomerates, were put to the prosecution’s sword. They killed themselves. Many questioned the severity of their interrogations. But prosecutors often get off the hook. Even if they are found to have gone too far, they just have to quit and join a private practice.
Society does not generally blame the prosecution for excess because it respects its authority. There are other watchdogs in our society, such as the media, National Tax Service, Board of Audit and Inspection and National Intelligence Service. But the prosecution is our last resort in defending social justice. It is up to prosecutors to hunt down the bad guys and bring them to justice. The sword with which they are bestowed is that important. The sword, therefore, must be clean. And that is why Prosecutor-General Chae Dong-wook’s sword is being questioned.
Chae knows very well just how daunting the prosecution’s sword can be. In February 2004, as chief prosecutor at the special investigation division of the Seoul District Office, he led the corruption case involving former Busan Mayor Ahn Sang-yeong. The mayor was suspected of receiving millions of won in bribes from a bus company owner. While under questioning, Ahn hung himself in a detention center.
According to the Monthly Chosun’s interviews with his acquaintances, Ahn felt humiliated while being questioned by prosecutors in Seoul. Ahn traveled to Seoul from Busan tied and hand-cuffed and had to use a public toilet on the highway in such a state. He was confined to a solitary room in an icy cold detention center for seven hours without knowing when he’d be questioned. The prosecution did not do anything technically wrong in its investigation. But Chae would have learned how terrifying the presence of the prosecution’s sword can be. And yet the prosecution has been given the authority to use its mighty sword in order to ferret out the truth and bring about justice.
Jin Jae-seon was one of the senior investigators on the team probing the NIS’s alleged smear campaign against presidential candidate Moon Jae-in during last year’s election. He organized the arraignment of former NIS chief Won Sei-hoon and Kim Yong-pan, former chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, on charges of masterminding and covering up the online smear campaign.
Jin, a state prosecutor, has been making regular donations to a progressive group campaigning to abolish the National Security Law. The NIS is an intelligence agency defending the National Security Law. How can a prosecutor that supports a private campaign to abolish the National Security Law be fair and just in an investigation against an agency whose primary role is to safeguard this law? Skepticism is only natural.
The prosecution was put to the test on its political neutrality through such an unprecedented case against another state agency. Its chief should have been more thorough and discreet. He should have made sure that the investigation had no ground for controversy whatsoever. Jin was ultimately removed from the case at the trial stage. The prosecution more or less admitted that his involvement could be controversial and should be ended.
The prosecution team accuses the police of organizing a cover-up of the NIS’s meddling in the presidential election. It presented a video clip of police investigators examining online comments. But some parts of the video clip proved to have been fabricated. The prosecution must honor and pursue the truth. It has committed a crime by distorting evidence. The prosecutor-general should have apologized to the public and punished any people involved for tainting the reputation of the prosecution. But instead, Chae defended the investigation team.
In 2010, Chae headed an internal affairs division that investigated prosecutors who received regular kickbacks from a businessman. The corporate executive claimed he entertained numerous prosecutors with drinking parties attended by female escorts for more than a decade. The woman, who allegedly delivered a son after an affair with Chae, ran a bar that Chae patronized for years. How was Chae able to afford frequent visits to an expensive bar for years on a meager public servant salary? He himself should walk into an interrogation room and answer these numerous questions about his past conduct and personal history.
Chae is not complying with a Justice Ministry-led investigation of his alleged love child. He has neither filed defamation charges against the Chosun Ilbo, which first reported that he had an out-of-wedlock son, and nor has he taken a paternity test to clear his name. Why is he dragging his feet? For someone who has mercilessly wielded the sword against others, he seems mighty frightened of the flash coming from the blade. What is he frightened of? He is the commander of the army defending justice. If he wavers, so will the sword of his army.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin