Yang must be treated carefullyFormer Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae became the first leader of Korea’s judiciary to be put behind bars. Yang’s fall from grace shocks the public because he was brought down not just by personal wrongdoing but due to allegations that he undermined the independence and integrity of the bench. Although he has not yet been declared guilty, confidence in Korea’s judiciary has collapsed. The judiciary forms the three pillars of national power, and its disgrace has caused a serious shame and worry to the country.
The Seoul Central District Court under Judge Myeong Jae-kwon agreed with most of the charges raised by the prosecution against the former head of the top court and endorsed an arrest warrant due to the risk that Yang would destroy evidence. The ruling suggests that the prosecution has put forward a strong case in the key allegation that Yang had interfered in the rulings over former workers of forced labor for Japanese companies during the World War II on behalf of the Park Geun-hye administration, which did not want a diplomatic row with Japan over the issue. Prosecutors have collected evidence through a seven-month investigation and requested physical detention. But some are raising questions about whether it is necessary to detain the former judiciary chief. It goes against the criminal law principle of allowing the defendant physical freedom during court trials.
But the court has made a decision, and its judgment must be respected. Hyping the pretrial arrest with political significance, however, does not help to address the issue. Rivaling politicians wrangle over the affair with the ruling, welcoming Yang’s arrest while the opposition criticizes political influence. The court must decide the truth behind the so-called systematic influence-peddling in bench decisions. Pretrial detention does not pronounce someone guilty. Various administrative documents did suggest Yang overstretched his power. But whether this can proved in court is not yet known. This will be determined during the trial.
The case could be lengthy due to the long list of witnesses and broad range of charges against the former judge. The court must not rush to finish the proceedings during the maximum 180-day detention term. The court must focus on finding the truth behind the allegations instead of running on the given timetable.
The judiciary, meanwhile, must do its utmost to restore dignity and public confidence. Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su and judges across the country must seriously reflect on how they can revive the independence of the judiciary through the momentum of Yang’s arrest. Kim made a public apology. He must also pay heed to the criticism that progressive judges have become a new mainstream in the judiciary and are another form of collective power. If the judiciary shakes, so does the country. Korea cannot be safe if people question the country’s judges.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 25, Page 30