A bad precedentProsecutor General Yoon Seok-youl on Thursday accepted Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s order about a case involving alleged coercion by a reporter from Channel A, a conservative media outlet, and a prosecutor at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office to collect intelligence on corruption of government officials in the Moon Jae-in administration. After the development, the conflict between the justice ministry and the prosecution will subside, albeit temporarily.
But we are deeply concerned about the exclusion of the top prosecutor from an ongoing investigation. In 2013, Yoon — then head of an investigation team looking into a highly explosive case involving the National Intelligence Service’s online opinion manipulation — had to step aside due to pressure from the conservative Park Geun-hye administration.
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said that the justice minister’s order on the investigation took effect the moment she executed it. The top prosecutors’ office did not make clear whether that really means it agrees with the minister’s order. Yet it has left the case to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office “since the prosecutor general has already lost control of the case.”
After Choo on July 2 invoked her right to command a prosecutor general, Yoon summoned top prosecutors from across the country the next day to effectively respond to Choo’s exercise of the right. They agreed to stop establishing an outside panel for advice and appoint an independent prosecutor to the case, while raising an objection to Choo’s control of the case. After Choo rejected the offer, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and the Justice Ministry came up with the idea of setting up an independent investigation headquarters led by head of the Seoul High District Prosecutors’ Office to probe the case.
But Choo refused that proposal too. She insisted that the prosecution faithfully carry out her instruction without any deviation. Such a position provokes strong suspicion that she wanted to push the prosecutor general into a corner or force him to step down.
Such suspicions have some grounds. On Thursday, Rep. Choe Kang-wook — a former presidential secretary on civil affairs and an ally of the ruling party — posted an official notice from the justice ministry on Facebook. The post, slightly different from the final version, was most likely a draft of Choo’s notice, which came out two hours later. Choo appears to have tried to get advice on her position from allies, including Choe.
Rep. Choe was already accused of posting what he called “remarks by the Channel A reporter” on Facebook, which is “fake news,” according to a civic group. Choe is not only a defendant in a new case, but also an avid opponent of Prosecutor General Yoon since he started an investigation into former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, whom Choe worked for.
Prosecutor General Yoon could avoid a resignation. But we seriously wonder if Justice Minister Choo will step into prosecutors’ investigations into a plethora of suspicious cases involving ruling party lawmakers whenever she wants to. Choo must answer our deepening concerns.