Choo postpones meeting with prosecutors to talk reform

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Choo postpones meeting with prosecutors to talk reform


Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, right, shakes hands with Moon Chan-seok, left, head of the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office, during a visit Yoon made to the office in Gwangju on Thursday. [NEWS1]

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae has canceled her plan to host a meeting with top prosecutors, citing the coronavirus outbreak.

“We have decided to postpone the meeting, because it is urgent for senior prosecutors to exert all our efforts to counter the spread of the new coronavirus in their jurisdictions,” the Ministry of Justice said Wednesday evening. The ministry, however, did not elaborate on what role the prosecution will have to play to counter the spread of the disease.

Last week, Choo abruptly unveiled her plan to reform the criminal justice system by separating prosecutors into two groups - one in charge of investigations and the other in charge of indictments. She then invited heads of six high prosecutors’ offices and 18 district prosecutors’ offices from across the nation to attend a discussion today. Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl turned down the invitation.

Until Wednesday morning, the ministry was not considering a delay. It also rejected the prosecutors’ request that the discussion be aired live or minutes be released later.

The ministry, however, made an abrupt decision to postpone the meeting indefinitely later Wednesday afternoon. “In Daegu and North Gyeongsang, 15 new patients were confirmed,” the ministry said. “We are seeing an emergency with possible community-associated infections.”

Participating prosecutors were only informed later in the afternoon about the delay.

The ministry, however, said the meeting was postponed, not canceled. “After the outbreak calms down, we will host the meeting without fail,” it said.

Speculation is rising that Choo has decided to postpone the meeting to avoid fierce attacks from the prosecutors. Not only Prosecutor General Yoon but also rank-and-file prosecutors have increasingly expressed their opposition to Choo’s idea to separate the prosecutors’ roles between investigation and indictment.

“The ministry could have felt burdened to host the meeting in this mood,” said a prosecutor. “Since the meeting is postponed, we hope constructive discussions take place at each prosecutors’ office about her plan.”

While Choo postponed her meeting with the top prosecutors, she continued to promote her controversial reform measure. The Ministry of Justice posted Thursday a link of Choo’s interview with TBS Radio’s “Kim Eo-jun’s News Factory,” a program often seen as pro-Moon Jae-in administration.

Public servants said it is rare for an interview with a certain media outlet to be featured on the main page of a ministry’s Internet site. She had the phone interview with Kim on Wednesday to promote the ministry’s efforts to counter the outbreak. The ministry is in charge of immigration and customs services, and it was her first media interview since she took office in January.

“When a minister has an interview with a media outlet, we inform the members of the ministry press corps, but we don’t post it on the main page of the Internet site,” said an official of a spokesman’s office of a ministry in the Government Complex in Sejong. “We normally post content created by the spokesman’s office. If you post content from a media company, it may cause legal issues.”

An official of the Justice Ministry said the interview link was posted by the spokesman’s office to promote the ministry’s policy.

While Choo canceled her plan for today’s meeting, Prosecutor General Yoon stuck to his plan and visited Gwangju on Thursday. Gwangju was the second destination on Yoon’s national tour, following Busan, where he met with key associates purged in last month’s reshuffles and refuted Choo’s idea of separating the prosecutors’ powers.

Before entering the building of the Gwangju High and District Prosecutors’ Offices, Yoon addressed the press briefly but did not answer any questions about prosecutorial reform. He only said he used to work in Gwangju as a prosecutor 15 years ago, and he feels emotional visiting the building again.

Liberal civic groups that support the Moon Jae-in administration’s campaign to weaken the power of the prosecution and conservative civic groups that support Yoon and prosecutors both held rallies outside the Gwangju prosecution building.

During his visit to Gwangju, Yoon met with aides recently demoted from powerful posts in Seoul. Heads of Gwangju High Prosecutors’ Office and Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office as well as the heads of the district prosecutors’ offices in Jeju and Jeonju attended the meeting.

Jeju Prosecution Head Park Chan-ho and Jeonju Prosecution Head Noh Jeong-yeon are both Yoon’s former aides at the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office. Before Choo’s reshuffle sent Park to Jeju last month, he was the head of the public security department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, investigating allegations that the Blue House abused its power to influence the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election and help a friend of President Moon Jae-in win.

Moon Chan-seok, head of the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office, is also an overt protester of Choo’s reform measures. At the prosecution leadership meeting on Feb. 10, Moon condemned Lee Sung-yoon, the new chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, for having refused the prosecutor general’s order to indict a Blue House secretary.

Last month, Lee rejected Yoon’s order three times to indict Choe Kang-wook, presidential secretary for civil service discipline, on charges of helping former Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s son apply to law schools by issuing false internship certificates. After Lee refused to authorize the indictment, Song Gyeong-ho, third deputy head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, signed it on Jan. 23.

Before Choo sent him to Gwangju, Moon was the head of the planning and coordination department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, representing the prosecutors’ position about the administration and ruling party’s campaign to weaken their investigative powers.

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