Moon should heed own advice
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Imagine two people, who we’ll call “A” and “B.” A is a senior superintendent who’s been appointed to lead a police precinct in a small city near Seoul. A investigates B, the city’s mayor, on allegations of receiving bribes and violating the Political Fund Act. A books B on those charges. The court convicts B. B gets suspended from work.
The following year, A gets elected mayor of the city. No one knows for sure whether A intentionally targeted B to remove him. But there seems to be enough ground to believe so. A might have investigated B with pure intentions. But it’s hard to think A made a good decision to run for mayor.
This is a true story. As I was told, after A became mayor, he and his aides received bribes as well. They were later convicted of those crimes and were sentenced to jail terms. A senior police officer told me this episode about a decade ago. Man did I try hard to hold myself back from blurting out, “That’s why the police are so disqualified.”
The anecdote popped into my mind as prosecutors started investigating the Blue House’s alleged meddling in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election, while the National Assembly passed a package of bills to redistribute investigative authority between the prosecution and police. Both cases relate to one another. At the entrance of the Korean National Police Agency, there’s a huge sign that reads, “Police investigate, prosecutors indict, and the benefits go to the public.” The sign shows a sense of pride from the police that they have finally gained independence from the prosecution. But can the police really be free from illicit interference and pressure from the government? If the police gain power, will more benefits truly go toward ordinary citizens? The reason why so many people are doubtful is because the police have yet to prove they have what it takes.
Officers have lost public trust in countless cases through corruption, botched investigations, human rights violations and kowtowing to those with high authority. It’s hard to tell who’s worse: the police or prosecution. But the Moon Jae-in administration is only taking away power from prosecutors to hand it over to the police. Some critics say that passing investigation rights to the police is akin to adding 10,000 more personnel to the prosecution.
The ongoing Ulsan probe has a lot in common with the story of A and B. But one critical factor that sets them apart is that the previous case features the president’s former and current aides, friends and longtime partners. Reacting with a simple line like “that’s why the police are so disqualified” is not enough. It’s only reasonable and natural for prosecutors to investigate whether police colluded with presidential aides to meddle in the Ulsan mayoral election.
If you ask me what stance Moon should take on the probe, I can tell you that the answer appears in a book he co-authored with professor Kim In-hoe in 2011, titled “Thinking about the prosecution.” In the book, one bolded line reads, “Political neutrality is the key and starting line of prosecutorial reform.” Another line reads, “Political neutrality is to voluntarily restrain from intervening in prosecutorial rights.” It means that in order to achieve prosecutorial reform, it’s not enough for prosecutors to keep political neutrality. The president must also show his will to not intervene in the rights of the prosecution.
Moon once said there was only one good exemplar in the entire history of Korea’s prosecution, and that it was its probe into presidential campaign funds during the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2003. Prosecutors, at the time, recklessly investigated and punished many close aides to Roh, as well his longterm donor Kang Geum-won. Moon, who was Roh’s chief of staff back then, praised prosecutors for their diligent work and said Roh did not involve himself in the probe at all, which was why the investigation was such a success.
In that sense, today’s Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl is somewhat similar to Roh. The reason why he’s praised by others — even at mourning altars — is because for the first time in a long time, prosecutors are not caving into the government during their investigations. When comparing the Ulsan probe to the 2003 campaign probe, Moon should clearly know what choices to make. If anyone, such as the justice minister, dares to affect the Ulsan probe in any way, it would be in grave defiance of Moon’s creed. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae will be closely watched when she soon makes her second major reshuffle of the prosecution — and decides the fate of the Ulsan probe team.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 23, Page 24