Independence is key

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Independence is key


Kim Kyung-soo
The author, the last head of the special investigation department at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, is a former head of the Busan High Prosecutors’ Office.

Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, who has prosecuted two former presidents, a top court chief justice and many others under past governments, was handpicked by President Moon Jae-in to continue investigations into past wrongdoings and to reform the prosecution. The president touted Yoon as a tough prosecutor who would investigate “sitting power” rather than serve a president.

Then the president named Cho Kuk, a former senior Blue House secretary for civil affairs, as the justice minister despite multiple allegations around his family, because he was the “best candidate to spearhead prosecution reforms.”

Both were assigned with presidential orders to see through prosecutorial reform. But they now stand at the opposite ends of a tense battle. The president has been pressing the prosecution under Yoon to cooperate with Cho to fulfill the goal of reform. What exactly is the reform that stakes a clash between the prosecution chief and justice minister? Why is the president so intent on prosecution reforms when Cho’s family is under investigation?

After a civilian government took the place of the authoritarian government in 1992, the law enforcement authority went to the prosecution instead of the central intelligence agency or the national security command in the military. The prosecution has become powerful under the name of law and order. But soon, it came under the influence of the president with mighty power under Korea’s political system running largely on executive authority. The president with the authority to appoint the chief of the top law enforcement agency had the temptation to use the prosecution for political purposes. The prosecution mostly complied, as siding with the president and governing power gave it greater power.

Political neutrality was lost after the top law enforcement agency colluded with the governing power. Outsized power made prosecutors arrogant. Reforms must focus on three goals: first, establishment of political neutrality and independence in investigations to ensure fairness; second, cleanness; and third, professionalism.


Justice Minister Cho Kuk, left, and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. [YONHAP]

Out of the three, achieving political neutrality and investigative independence is the most important. History should be its lesson. The prosecution earned public support when it investigated the sitting power but lost public trust when it kowtowed to money and power.

Investigations are to identify and indict a suspect of a crime and find evidence for court trials. Prosecutors’ ultimate goal is to practice justice. Investigation procedures can be harsh and abusive. Special investigations are given mighty power and equally heavy responsibility. Justice can be established when a suspect is indicted. But the person and family will suffer pain for life.

Striking a balance between justice and human rights is not easy. That’s why investigations should be in the hands of professionals.
Faking a research paper or award to falsely build academic credentials are not misdemeanors. The extent of the investigation can often be swayed by the suspect’s social status, public interest and complexities more than criminal charges. The prosecution has a duty to the people to carry out a rigorous investigation with the help of its mighty special investigation department.

The investigations on wrongdoings of the past governments have not been any less important. But after Cho’s family got involved, the Moon administration is engrossed with improving procedures by banning photo taking of the suspects in front of the prosecution, prohibiting the public release of the indictment and scaling down the special investigation department instead of maintaining the neutrality and independence of the prosecution.

The Cho Kuk scandal has even encouraged the masses to rally in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, to protect the president and the minister.

The prosecution requires reforms so that it can humbly serve the people and truly uphold the laws and civilian rights. Every prosecutor has the duty to honor investigations from political and outside influence.

A warrior does not keep a fire on his side even if he freezes to death. Nothing of value can be gained without sacrifice. The president and political power must respect sovereignty in the prosecution for the future of the nation and people.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 10, Page 29
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