Choo orders Yoon to be walled off from two probes
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae on Monday ordered Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl to stay away from two controversial investigations — one of a failed hedge fund and another of Yoon’s own family.
“We need to guarantee fair and independent probes into Lime Asset Management and the prosecutor general’s family,” Choo was quoted as saying in a Ministry of Justice statement. She ordered the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office and Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office to exclude Yoon from those probes and only brief him about the final outcomes of the investigations.
The move was seen as Choo's latest attempt to remove Yoon from his position. The prosecutor general, appointed by President Moon Jae-in in July 2019, has been at odds with the administration since he allowed probes into Choo's predecessor, Cho Kuk, and his family over alleged financial and academic frauds.
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office has been investigating allegations about Yoon’s family. Yoon’s wife, Kim Kun-hui, is accused by a civic group of having taken kickbacks when her company, an art event planner, hosted an exhibition in 2019. The prosecution is also looking into an allegation that Kim was involved in manipulation of the stock price of Deutsch Motors, a local listed company that imports cars, from 2010 till 2011.
Kim, who married Yoon in 2012, has denied the allegations.
Yoon’s mother-in-law is also facing a scandal. Reportedly, she was let off the hook when a nursing home she invested in got in trouble in 2013 for violating medical laws. The mother-in-law denies the reports.
“Yoon should have recused himself from the criminal investigations into himself and his family,” Choo said, according to the Ministry of Justice statement, stressing the need to guarantee independence to prosecutors probing Yoon's family.
According to Choo’s order, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office will not brief the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office on the progress of the investigations into his relatives. At the end of the probes, Yoon will only be informed.
A spokesman for the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said Choo's order changes nothing because Yoon was already keeping a distance from the probes. "From the beginning, Yoon never intervened or received briefings about the probes into his family,” the official said.
The Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office is investigating Lime Asset Management, which is accused of fraud and criminal lobbying of top government officials and politicians.
“We cannot completely eliminate the possibility that the prosecutor general is linked to Lime’s suspected lobbying activities,” Choo said.
Last week, the Justice Ministry suggested that Yoon was deliberately refraining from investigating opposition politicians caught up in the Lime scandal. Yoon said the suggestion was a “nonsensical story.”
Kim Bong-hyun, a key suspect in the fraud investigation, prompted the question into Yoon’s integrity on Friday by sending a letter to the media. He claimed that he had lobbied not only members of the Moon administration but also an influential opposition politician and sitting prosecutors.
Choo's order on Monday was the third time in the history of Korea’s criminal justice system that the justice minister has exercised his or her legal right to intervene in a case before prosecutors. Although the justice minister has legal authority to direct and supervise the prosecutor general in a specific investigation, that authority was only used twice in the past, allowing the prosecution to maintain independence.
The first precedent was in 2005, when Justice Minister Chun Jung-bae ordered prosecutors not to attempt to detain Kang Jeong-soo, a sociology professor at Dongguk University, for investigation into alleged National Security Act violations. Prosecutor General Kim Jong-bin accepted the order, but resigned from his post only six months into a two-year term.
Three months ago, Choo herself made the second precedent. She ordered Yoon to shut down a review of the validity of an investigation into alleged collusion between Han Dong-hoon, a senior prosecutor and a close ally of Yoon, and Lee Dong-jae, a reporter from Channel A. She also ordered the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office to bypass Yoon during the probe.
Yoon reluctantly complied with Choo’s order. Although political observers said Choo was pressuring Yoon to resign, he did not. Yoon’s term is scheduled to end in July 2021.
After Choo effectively deprived Yoon of his powers to supervise the prosecutors for a second time in three months, a senior prosecutor said, “She is telling him to just step down.”
The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) on Tuesday condemned Choo for abusing her powers and urged Moon to replace her. PPP lawmakers urged an independent counsel to be appointed to investigate the Lime scandal and Choo’s use of her authority.
BY SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]