Latest salvo is fired in battle with prosecution

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Latest salvo is fired in battle with prosecution

Choo Mi-ae on Friday issued her first special order as justice minister, requiring the state prosecution service to get prior permission before establishing special investigative units.

The order, which comes after a controversial reshuffle of the state prosecution service by Choo last week, is the Moon Jae-in administration’s latest attempt to rein in the prosecution as part of a major reform drive.

With the measure, prosecutors are now required to receive the justice minister’s prior approval before creating special investigative units not already mandated in the institution’s legal framework. According to the Justice Ministry, which seeks to reduce the frequency of direct investigations by the prosecution, there will be no exceptions to this rule, though special units that have already been created will be allowed to exist as they are.

Analysts believe the measure may have been in part prompted by rumors that Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl planned to form a special investigative unit to probe the Blue House over allegations of meddling in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral elections in response to a major reshuffle on Wednesday in which 32 top prosecutors were reassigned to new posts.

The reassignments, which were carried out on Choo’s orders without prior notice to Yoon, invited heavy backlash from the top prosecutor, who sparked controversy over his conduct after he refused to meet Choo to offer his opinions on the reshuffle.

Accusing Yoon of disloyalty, Choo and the ruling Democratic Party (DP) doubled down on public criticism of the top prosecutor, noting that an inspection into Yoon could be in order to ensure he complies with the administration’s reforms.

Not backing down from what they perceived as an effort to weaken the agency, prosecutors attempted to conduct a raid on the Blue House itself on Saturday, targeting the office of the secretary for local autonomy and balanced development. The Blue House refused to comply with the search, citing the vagueness of the court warrant covering the raid.

The warrant did not specify what materials were being sought, “merely listing ‘all criminal evidence’ as their objective,” said Blue House spokesperson Ko Min-jung. “We express deep regret with [the prosecution’s] attempt to conduct an unprecedented raid never before allowed without the proper procedures, just in order to make a show out of this investigation.”

Despite its failure, the raid was the third time the state prosecution service carried out a forced search of the Blue House as the conflict between the two institutions reaches a boiling point.

Prosecutors have not taken kindly to Choo’s order, with rumors circulating around the agency that the measure banning them from creating special units is meant to preempt the agency’s forthcoming special probe into the Ulsan case.

According to one source in the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, the agency was planning to bring in Han Dong-hoon, an anticorruption prosecutor in Busan, and Park Chan-ho, the newly appointed chief of the Jeju Prosecutors’ Office, to oversee the Ulsan case with a special unit, given the two prosecutors’ prior experience investigating key Blue House-related cases and their familiarity with Yoon.

The attempt to rein in the agency also represents an acceleration of the administration’s prosecutorial reform drive in the new year, as the ruling DP finalizes its legislative efforts to pass key reform bills to curb the agency’s powers.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, KIM MIN-SANG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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