Prosecutor pushes back on pro-Cho pressure

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Prosecutor pushes back on pro-Cho pressure

Confrontation between the prosecution and Justice Ministry reached a new high on Monday after the ministry publicly condemned a senior prosecutor’s criticism of his new boss for trying to bury a case against former Justice Minister Cho Kuk.

“As the highest supervisor of the prosecution, I express my serious regret that some prosecutors have committed an inappropriate act at a funeral,” Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae said in a statement on Monday. Choo said she was apologizing to the public because senior members of the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office recently acted disgracefully, yelling loudly under the influence of alcohol at a funeral late at night.

“It is deplorable that prosecutors, who have shown similar behavior in the past, are not improving their attitudes,” Choo said. “It is even more lamentable that several senior prosecutors have acted disgracefully late at night. I will put efforts into changing the organizational culture of the prosecution and strengthen public discipline.”

Choo was referring to an altercation between two senior prosecutors that took place Saturday night at a funeral of a prosecutor’s father-in-law. Yang Seok-jo, a deputy head of the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office’s anticorruption department and organized crimes department, loudly condemned Sim Jae-cheol, his new boss, for his attempt to influence a probe into Cho. Yang criticized Sim for having tried to clear Cho without an indictment for political reasons.

Sources in the prosecution told the JoongAng Ilbo that the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office held a senior prosecutors meeting to discuss the case on Friday. Sim, appointed to his new post in a reshuffle by Choo earlier this month to weaken the power of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, attended the meeting as well as Yang.

At the meeting, Sim argued that the case should be dismissed because there is no evidence against Cho, sources said, prompting some participants to ask him if he had read the case file. Yoon concluded that Cho should be prosecuted, and the indictment paper was submitted to the court later in the day, according to the sources.

After an 11-month investigation, the prosecution indicted Cho on Friday on charges of abusing his power of office when he was working in the Moon Jae-in Blue House to shut down an internal investigation into Yoo Jae-soo, a former Busan vice mayor and a key associate of the president.

When Yang ran into Sim at the funeral of a colleague’s father-in-law Saturday night, he challenged his new boss loudly for having tried to bury the case. “You have to explain why Cho should be cleared without an indictment!” Yang yelled at Sim at the funeral. “Are you a prosecutor or are you Cho’s defense attorney?”

After Choo issued a statement Monday condemning him, Yang reportedly told his co-workers that he is not afraid of a demotion. He took a day off on Monday.

Speculation grew that the Ministry of Justice may hold a disciplinary hearing to punish Yang. The hearing would be overseen by a seven-member committee headed by Choo. She also has the right to appoint the members of the committee.

“He may face a salary cut or reprimand if Choo holds a disciplinary hearing, and prosecutors will strongly resist,” said a lawyer who used to work at the Justice Ministry.

If Choo punishes Yang over the incident, prosecutors will completely turn against her, insiders said. “Prosecutors are increasingly saying that it is a dishonor to be promoted in the Moon administration,” a prosecutor told the JoongAng Ilbo.

Prosecutors also expressed their contempt for Sim. “After one week in his new job, Sim unreasonably tried to influence a case,” said a prosecutor.

“It is not Yang who needs to be punished,” said another prosecutor. “Sim should be punished for trying to bury the case.”

A head of a district prosecutors’ office said Sim is playing politics to win more promotions. “Sim is trying to please the administration for a career success similar to that of Lee Sung-yoon, who became the new chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office after serving as the head of the Justice Ministry’s Criminal Affairs Bureau,” he said.

Sim, who worked as first deputy head of the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office, assisted Choo to prepare for her confirmation hearing in December. He was promoted to his current post in the Jan. 8 reshuffle to replace Han Dong-hoon, demoted as the deputy head of the Busan High Prosecutors’ Office. Han faced demotion after heading probes into Cho’s family.

Meanwhile, Cho’s indictment paper showed that powerful Moon associates tried to protect Yoo from the internal investigation in 2017. Lawmakers of the Liberty Korea Party obtained the document from the Justice Ministry and made it public on Monday.

Among those who lobbied for Yoo were South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Kyoung-soo and Youn Kun-young, then-director of the state affairs planning and monitoring office of the Blue House. After Yoo asked them for help, they requested Baek Won-woo, then-civil affairs secretary to the president, to stop the investigation, according to the indictment. Baek asked his boss Cho to stop the investigation , and Cho ordered its suspension, the indictment paper said.

BY SER MYO-JA, PARK TAE-IN [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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