Moon on the edge

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Moon on the edge

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Lee Chul-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

It is a widely accepted theory that the collapse of the Park Geun-hye administration began in 2016 when the Saenuri Party selected hardcore Park supporters to run in that year’s general elections. But it can also be traced to 2014, when the No. 2 posts in the prosecution, police and National Tax Service were all filled with graduates of Cheonggu High School in Daegu, flagrantly disregarding the principle of regional distribution of perks and positions. Even people from Daegu were fed up with the Cheonggu alumni hogging prestigious positions.

Park’s personnel decisions grew even more biased when the so-called Chung Yoon-hoi scandal erupted in late 2014, after which Park tapped Kim Soo-nam as prosecutor general and Kang Shin-myung as commissioner general of the police, who were also Cheonggu graduates. It’s natural for people to cling to those they trust when they feel anxious. Yet such an act is political suicide. Former President Park was surrounded by only a few aides — and that paved the way to her impeachment.

When I recently saw current Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s allies get purged, I felt a chill. Now, the “big four” posts — chief prosecutor of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, head of the anticorruption and organized crimes department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, chief of the public security department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, and the Justice Ministry’s Criminal Affairs Bureau — are all occupied by Honam, or South and North Jeolla, figures. It could have been that President Moon Jae-in’s secretary for civil service discipline, who’s from Jeonju, North Jeolla, influenced the appointments. But this was unprecedented even for the Kim Dae-jung administration.

The big problem is the Moon government’s fear. After Prosecutor General Yoon’s relentless investigations of alleged corruption and abuse of power in the Blue House and government — and after ex-investigator Kim Tae-woo’s whistle-blowing — it seems that the Moon administration feels it can’t trust anyone anymore, which is why it’s only promoting people from the same geographical regions or those with the same ideology. According to rumors, prosecutors were even asked what they thought about Moon’s income-led growth policy when the Justice Ministry carried out its reshuffle. It is evident that the government is narrowing its support base to people from Honam or those who joined the pro-democracy movement of the 1980s.

Why is Moon taking such a risk? Is it because of the former Justice Minister Cho Kuk scandal exposing the double standards and hypocrisy of the liberals? (Liberal pundit Rhyu Si-min, an ally of Moon, attacked the prosecution for writing “a coarse thriller that’s holding a family hostage.”) Or is it because of the Yoo Jae-soo case, in which many of Moon’s closest aides are mired? Both are peripheral issues. The Blue House’s alleged intervention in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election is the primary reason — one that could directly be linked to Moon. Ever since prosecutors began seriously probing the case late last November, the Blue House has been responding more fiercely.

Moon’s former Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok claimed that Prosecutor General Yoon had a “clear purpose” when he referred a case that’s been cloaked for 20 months to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. But there’s another reason why the case came to the surface so belatedly. Above all, it was difficult for Ulsan prosecutors to investigate former Ulsan police chief Hwang Un-ha. At a time when a package of bills aimed at redistributing investigative authority between the prosecution and the police was fast-tracked, prosecutors would have suffered a backlash if they had investigated Hwang.

On top of this was Hwang’s uncooperative behavior to prosecutors. Police officers were afraid they might be demoted if they cooperated with the prosecution’s investigation. It was only after Hwang became the Daejeon police chief that they began to testify. Last October, they submitted piles of documents shared among the Blue House, the Korean National Police Agency and the Ulsan police to prosecutors, who quickly carried them to Seoul.

The explosive power of this case was shown in the prosecution’s 71-page indictment of 13 suspects linked to the Ulsan election. The word “president” appears 39 times, and the indictment repeatedly said that the president’s secretaries “wrongfully influenced the election” even though “they had to keep political neutrality more than anyone else.” Half of the indictment depicted how Hwang meticulously executed the Blue House’s orders to investigate then-Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon — a conservative politician — over corruption. A lawyer who was once part of the progressive Lawyers for a Democratic Society said, “This case is even worse than a seismic abuse-of-power scandal in 1992 ahead of the presidential election, and almost akin to the Syngman Rhee era.”

How the case will unfold depends on the results of the April 15 parliamentary elections. The opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) has made it its election pledge to call for a special probe, and its floor leader said that if it turns out Moon was involved in the alleged election-meddling, the party would push for his impeachment. A former prosecutor general said that the indictment showed a president violating the Constitution. If the National Assembly kicks off a special probe, it may lead to an impeachment bill, he said.

The conservative opposition is in disarray. On their behalf, Yoon and former Prof. Chin Jung-kwon have fought against the liberals’ tyranny. But Yoon and Chin distance themselves from the opposition. It is time for the conservatives to rise on their own. It is not the time to rely on Yoon and Chin. LKP Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn’s bid to run in Jongno District, central Seoul, this April and Rep. Yoo Seong-min’s announcement that he would not run in that election were both starters to realign the opposition.

Moon should be busy looking for solutions. The following are parts of Moon’s declaration in 2013, when he was a lawmaker, at the time of the National Intelligence Service opinion rigging scandal: “Probes in the police and prosecution are being disturbed, and the truth is being hidden […] The Park Geun-hye administration and Korean democracy will sink deeper into the mire the longer [the government] tries to drag on and cover up the truth.” Moon urged the Park administration to “stop the unjust pressure against the prosecution’s investigations.” Moon should listen to his own words of advice.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 12, Page 31

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