Prosecutor general backs down, obeys justice minister
Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl on Thursday reluctantly complied with Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s order to give greater independence to district prosecutors investigating one of his key associates.
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office announced Thursday morning that Yoon had no choice but to obey Choo’s order. The statement was released after Choo made clear the previous night that she wouldn’t accept any compromise from Yoon and pressured him to obey every single word of her order of July 2.
The office of the top prosecutor said Choo effectively deprived Yoon of his powers to supervise the prosecutors in its investigation into suspected collusion between a reporter and Han Dong-hoon, a senior prosecutor and an ally of Yoon’s. It also informed the Seoul district office of its position.
About 20 minutes later, Choo expressed her satisfaction. “The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office will be in charge of the investigation with greater independence,” she said. “It is belated, but this fulfills the people’s demands.”
Battle lines were drawn between Choo, a champion of President Moon Jae-in's prosecutorial reform campaign, and the state prosecution service after the minister last week issued an order calling on Yoon to stay away from the ongoing investigation into Han.
Choo made the rare intervention in the criminal justice system on July 2, ordering Yoon to shut down a review of the validity of the probe.
She also ordered Yoon to grant the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office’s request for greater independence in investigating Han.
Han, who worked with Yoon on various high-profile cases, is under investigation for allegedly colluding with Lee Dong-jae, a reporter from Channel A, to blackmail a businessman for incriminating information on Rhyu Si-min, a liberal pundit with close ties to the Moon administration.
Last month, the district office asked the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to be exempt from making interim reports to Yoon and taking instructions from him on the probe, since Han is a suspect. The district office said it wanted to only report the final outcome of the probe to Yoon in order to protect its integrity.
Yoon’s office rejected the request, but Choo told Yoon to reverse his decision.
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office shut down the validity review, but did not immediately submit to her order. On Friday, Yoon summoned senior prosecutors from district and high prosecutors’ offices across the country to deliberate on Choo’s instruction and decide whether they represent an overreach of her authority over the prosecutor general, whose independence is technically guaranteed under law.
As Yoon stayed mum, Choo issued an ultimatum on Wednesday, giving him until 10 a.m. Thursday to submit to her order. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office on Wednesday evening said it proposed to Choo that an independent team, headed by Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office Chief Kim Yong-dae, would be launched to handle the probe. The Seoul district prosecutors currently investigating the case were to join the new team.
It said Yoon would not supervise the probe and would only be briefed by the team about its final conclusion.
Just 100 minutes later, Choo flatly rejected Yoon’s plan. She said Yoon must submit to every single word in her order, rather than making a counterproposal.
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office on Thursday morning released a statement and said Yoon would act in accordance with Choo's order.
The office, however, chose its words carefully to make clear Yoon was forced to do so against his will.
It said the minister made a “formative action” to deprive Yoon’s powers to command prosecutors in an investigation.
Yoon never explicitly stated that he was willingly submitting to Choo’s order. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office used the expression “formative” to describe Choo’s instruction to stress that it is an order that takes effect whether Yoon accepts it or not.
Unless Choo’s decision is invalidated as a consequence of a legal dispute, Yoon will lose part of his authority, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said, hinting at the possibility of a court challenge.
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office also said it offered the compromise to the Justice Ministry on Wednesday because the ministry told it to do so, expressing displeasure at being tricked.
“After the minister issued the order, the Justice Ministry first proposed that we form an independent investigation team to be headed by the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office chief,” it said. “We agreed. The Justice Ministry, then, asked us on Wednesday to publicly propose the plan [and we did only to see it rejected].”
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office also said there was a precedent for Yoon being forced out of an investigation.
“When he was heading the investigation into the National Intelligence Service in 2013 [over its alleged interference in the 2012 presidential election to help Park Geun-hye win], Yoon was relieved from his duty and forced to stay away from the probe,” the office said.
Yoon was a high-flying prosecutor who earned the nickname “swordsman” for indicting high-profile politicians and heads of conglomerates in his career. He became an icon of independence in 2013, when he revealed during a parliamentary hearing that his probe into illegal meddling by the intelligence agency in the 2012 presidential election was interfered with by his superiors.
He was pushed out of that investigation and assigned to trivial posts outside Seoul in a series of demotions. He returned to the spotlight in December 2016 when he joined the independent counsel team that investigated Park.
Shortly after Moon took office in May 2017, the new liberal president handpicked Yoon to head the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. In July 2019, Moon promoted Yoon to prosecutor general for “integrity that was not shaken by outside pressure.”
The chumminess between the administration and Yoon quickly ended after the prosecution went after Cho Kuk, former justice minister and Moon’s key political ally, and his family last August for alleged financial and academic corruption. Cho ended up serving as justice minister for only 36 days.
It is unlikely that Yoon will step down from his post despite pressure from the ruling party and supporters of the administration. Yoon’s two-year tenure, guaranteed by law, will end next July.
BY SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]