Choo’s plans get mixed reviewsJustice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s plan to separate prosecutors into two groups - one in charge of investigation and another in charge of indictments - is receiving mixed feedback with members of the law community voicing concerns while her predecessor expresses support.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Choo discussed her plan to reform the criminal justice system by strengthening control over the prosecution. It was her first official media conference since she took office on Jan. 2.
“From now on, the Ministry of Justice will check on the entire criminal justice system to see if the current ways of investigation violate laws and principles,” Choo said. “We will improve them one by one.”
The key of her plan was to divide the prosecution internally by separating the teams in charge of investigation and indictments. By doing so, a case will be investigated by a prosecutor but indicted by another prosecutor.
“When prosecutors investigate major cases directly and make indictments, there is a concern that they will lose neutrality and objectivity,” she said. “Therefore, we need an internal control mechanism. Before the relevant laws are revised, we will first operate a pilot program at a regional office.”
As of now, the prosecution has a system that allows outsiders of an investigation team to offer opinions on whether an indictment should be made or not. Citing such a system, Choo said, “More horizontal internal control will be possible by separating investigation and indictment teams.”
Prosecutors said the measure is a stopgap measure after her associate failed to stop an indictment against Choe Kang-wook, presidential secretary for civil service discipline. Choe was indicted on Jan. 23 for allegedly helping former Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s son apply to law schools by issuing false internship certificates.
Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office Chief Lee Sung-yoon had rejected Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s order to indict Choe three times. After Lee refused to authorize the indictment, Song Gyeong-ho, third deputy head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, signed the indictment.
Other members of the law community said the measure will be ineffective. “An investigation team of a high-profile case would routinely report the progress of the probe to the head of the district office and the prosecutor general,” said Kim Jong-min, a lawyer who once served as deputy head of a district prosecutors’ office. “It will be difficult for an indictment team to present a different opinion at the indictment stage. That also goes against the principle of uniformity of public prosecutors.”
Kim said it is more realistic to strengthen evaluations or audits on the prosecutors after they make indictments.
Choo’s predecessor Cho, however, praised her measure. “I applaud Minister Choo,” Cho said in a post on his Facebook Tuesday evening. “It will be a very meaningful attempt of internal control of the prosecutors by organizationally dividing the main agents of investigation and indictment inside the prosecution,” Cho wrote. “I believe this will be possible without revising laws.”
He said the ultimate goal of the Moon Jae-in administration’s criminal justice system reform is giving the police the entire right to investigate, while the prosecution’s authority will be limited to making indictments.
It remains to be seen if the new measure will affect the investigation and indictments of key members of the Moon administration suspected of having influenced the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election to help the president’s longtime friend Song Cheol-ho win. The prosecution indicted 13 people including several former presidential aides on Jan. 29, while postponing the questioning and possible indictments of other Moon associates such as former presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok until after the April 15 general elections to avoid any political repercussions.
In her press conference, Choo also addressed other controversies she stirred during her 40-days in the office. She continued to defend her recent decision to reject the National Assembly’s demand for the 71-page indictment document of the 13 people.
She also said indictments won’t be fully disclosed in the future. “If the National Assembly asks for the document after the prosecution’s indictment, we will submit a summary, just like we did for the Ulsan case,” Choo said. “The full text will be offered after a trial starts, only when there is need for a disclosure.”
She declined to discuss the situation that the Blue House has been refusing to submit to the prosecution’s attempts to exercise search and seizure warrants on the Ulsan case for a month. “An indictment was already made,” she said. “It is inappropriate to say the Justice Ministry’s opinion.”
Choo also defended her move, which earned the nickname “massacre,” to reshuffle senior prosecutors. Top aides of the prosecutor general were largely demoted or sent to lesser important jobs. “Those who got the desired jobs say nothing, but those who didn’t complain,” she said. “I cannot satisfy everyone, but I was told that it was a good reshuffle.”
Asked about the independence of the prosecution, Choo said, “Isn’t [Yoon] working fairly independently and daringly?”
BY SER MYO-JA, KANG KWANG-WOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]