Investigative agency criticized for compromisesAlthough the ruling and opposition parties struck a deal Monday to create a new investigative agency for senior officials, experts and lawmakers are raising concerns about the agency’s limited indictment powers.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and three minor opposition parties agreed Monday to fast-track bills on electoral reform and establishing an independent agency that will focus on crimes committed by high-ranking officials. The Bareunmirae Party (BP), Justice Party and the Party for Democracy and Peace (PDP) agreed to the bills, while the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) refused to join the negotiations.
Rep. Hong Young-pyo, the floor leader of the DP, admitted Tuesday that he made significant compromises on the bill for the new investigative agency.
“Unfortunately, I had to make a compromise that the agency won’t have the power to make indictments [against lawmakers and presidential families],” Hong said in a general assembly of DP lawmakers. “I still judged that it won’t be a critical flaw when the agency is launched and operated.”
DP Chairman Lee Hae-chan also said the ruling party made significant concessions in order to get the project started.
“When a ship is on the land, it cannot move. It needs to go into waters to start sailing,” he said. “What we are doing today is putting the ship into the sea.”
The DP lawmakers, then, endorsed the bill despite the compromise to send it to the National Assembly for a vote.
The compromised plan was also endorsed by the three other opposition parties on Tuesday.
According to the agreement, the new agency will have jurisdiction over about 7,000 people. For about 5,100 officials - including prosecutors, judges and senior police officials - the agency will have the power to investigate, seek warrants and make indictments.
For the remaining 1,900 people, including lawmakers, the president’s family members and relatives, ministers and vice ministers, the agency will only have the power to investigate and seek warrants. The prosecution will have the power to make indictments. The prosecutors can drop cases, but the agency can file motions to a court for reconsideration. If the court rules that an indictment is necessary, the prosecution must follow the order.
Creating a new investigative body was one of Moon’s key election pledges. The agency is being promoted as a solution for the excessive indictment powers of the prosecution.
Opposition lawmakers, particularly those from the LKP, have protested the idea. They said it can be used as a tool to oppress politicians who are critical of the administration.
The Blue House took a step back to strike a deal. Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Cho Kuk, tasked for with prosecutorial reform, earlier said that it would be possible to rule out elected officials, including lawmakers, as subjects of investigation, but the deal includes them.
The BP argued that the new agency should not be given indictment power. DP lawmakers strongly resisted the idea, and a compromise was made on Monday to finalize the bill.
Cho said Monday that he supports the agreement by the four parties.
“Legislation is a product of politics, and struggle and compromise are the essence of politics,” Cho said. “The opinions of the BP and the PDP, that the new agency must not be given the prosecutorial power, cannot be ignored.”
Yet concerns were raised by members of the legal community.
“I do not disagree with the idea of creating a new agency,” said Lee Wan-gyu, a prosecutor-turned-lawyer. “But I am afraid that politicians have used the criminal justice system as a bargaining chip ahead of legislative elections [next year].”
In order to create the new investigative agency, as agreed by the four parties, the Criminal Procedure Act needs to be revised.
“But changing one single term in the Criminal Procedure Act is not easy. That is our reality,” said a ruling party lawmaker on the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee.
Law experts who have supported the creation of a new investigative agency are also complaining about the compromised nature of the plan.
“The key is the power to investigate the Blue House and lawmakers,” said Han Sang-hee, a professor of law at Konkuk University and a member of the Center for Judicial Watch of civic group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. “Without having the power to make indictments against presidential families and lawmakers, the new agency seems too weak.”
A DP official also said he is worried about public criticism.
“When the anti-solicitation law was created, lawmakers were left out,” he said. “We are doing this again. From the eyes of the people, the core of top officials is lawmakers and presidential families. We deserve criticism.”
Others worry that there is no power to check the new agency.
“If the new agency commits crimes, the prosecution can investigate,” said a lawyer. “But if the agency abuses its investigative power, there is no one to stop it.”
Rep. Keum Tae-sup of the DP also said the agency will become a major new power.
“There is a large possibility that it will be abused as a new surveillance organ,” Keum said.
The ruling party leadership and the Blue House said that it is still important to take the first step.
The idea was first pushed forward by the Roh Moo-hyun administration, and his conservative successors both made similar pledges. Yet no progress has been made until this week. As the four parties all endorsed the plan to fast-track it, vote on the bill will take place within 330 days.
“Some say that the project must be postponed until after the April 2020 general elections in order to create an intact agency,” Cho said Tuesday. “But it is meaningful to take the first step.”
Prof. Han disagreed.
“Taking the first step is important, but in Korean politics, it is incredibly difficult to revise a law once it is created,” he said. “Political circumstances are understandable, but the current plan has many shortcomings.”
BY SER MYO-JA, PARK TAE-IN [firstname.lastname@example.org]