Protests being voiced within the prosecutionObjections are growing in the prosecution and legal community to the Moon Jae-in administration’s uncompromising campaign to weaken the power of prosecutors.
In his first meeting with senior prosecutors on Thursday, the new chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, Lee Sung-yoon, encountered protests about the administration’s attempts to tame the prosecution through a reshuffle and organizational restructuring.
According to participants, senior prosecutor Song Gyeong-ho told Lee he should preserve the prosecution’s political neutrality, quoting Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s inaugural speech in July.
“The country’s ability to counter unfairness in politics, the economy and society are crucial,” Song told Lee, his boss.
Song is deputy head of the office that has supervised a probe into former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his family. He personally supervised that probe.
“Turning a blind eye to illegalities and foul play committed by the strong in our politics, economy and society is a violation of our duty as prosecutors, bestowed by the constitution and the people,” Song said.
Other prosecutors followed his lead and protested the Ministry of Justice’s plan to reorganize departments. The plan was created when Lee was a senior official at the Justice Ministry playing a key role in drafting the restructuring plan.
“We have faith in your good will that you will not push forward this restructuring plan,” a senior prosecutor told Lee. Others echoed that request, participants said.
According to participants, Lee, a former senior official of the Justice Ministry who has championed prosecutorial reforms in recent years, mostly listened during the session, instead of rebutting arguments.
Over the past weeks, the prosecution has faced a series of challenges to its authority. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and its allies rammed through a bill to create a new investigation agency for senior public servants, chipping away at the prosecution’s exclusive power to make indictments. The new agency has the power to investigate and indict prosecutors and judges.
Moon also appointed Choo Mi-ae, former DP chairwoman, as his new justice minister earlier this month. She immediately carried out a reshuffle of top prosecutors, effectively purging those leading investigations into corruption and abuse of power by key associates of Moon.
On Monday, Choo abruptly announced a restructuring of the prosecution, downsizing 13 key investigation departments that handle high-profile cases. Departments that have investigated close allies of Moon, including former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and presidential aides accused of having meddled in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election, were among the offices to be shut down.
The ministry also reduced 13 public security investigation departments at 11 regional prosecutors’ offices nationwide to eight departments at seven offices. The reorganization will effectively weaken Prosecutor General Yoon’s pledge to crack down on any attempts by public servants to influence the campaign for the April 15 general election.
Later that night, the DP railroaded a package of bills designed to take away some investigative powers of the prosecution and give them to the police.
At Thursday’s meeting, senior prosecutors in Lee’s office, the largest district prosecution in the nation, expressed concerns that the planned restructuring will weaken ongoing probes into Cho and the Blue House’s alleged abuse of power to influence the Ulsan mayoral election.
The Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office formally informed the Justice Ministry on Thursday that it objects to the planned restructuring.
“Ahead of the follow-up reshuffle, senior prosecutors expressed their opinions courageously,” said a prosecutor in Seoul. “If there is another purge before the Lunar New Year holiday [next week], rank-and-file prosecutors will start to resist.”
The Ministry of Justice is already planning more reassignments of senior prosecutors. The ministry posted a notice on the intranet of the prosecution that it is accepting internal applications for 20 key posts, including heads of two internal inspection bureaus at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
“This is a signal that a massive reshuffle is coming,” said a senior prosecutor.
The ministry carried out a reshuffle of 620 senior prosecutors around the country last July. They were guaranteed posts for one year, and insiders said it would be an abuse of power for Choo to reassign them.
The ministry’s reshuffle and reorganization plans also faced criticism from outside. A group of 130 lawyers issued a statement Friday condemning the Moon administration for “dismantling the rule of law.”
They said the reshuffle of top prosecutors on Jan. 8 was obstruction of justice. “Most prosecution leaders who were investigating corruption and abuse of power allegations against key members of the administration were replaced,” the statement said. “This is a clear intent to obstruct the probes. The worst possible precedent was created to allow the next administrations to dismantle similar probes.”
The lawyers expressed concerns that high-profile probes will be affected by the planned restructuring of the prosecution. The departments in charge of investigations into Cho and his family’s corruption allegations, the Blue House’s alleged election meddling and suspected illegality in the process of a 2015 merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries are being affected by the reorganization plan, they said.
Among the lawyers who signed the statement were five former presidents of the Korean Bar Association.
BY PARK SA-RA, PARK TAE-IN [firstname.lastname@example.org]