Justice minister suspends top prosecutor, accuses him of illegal surveillance, ethical violations
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae on Tuesday suspended and moved to discipline Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl after accusing him of conducting illegal surveillance and breaching his political neutrality, an unprecedented move against the country’s top prosecutor.
Yoon immediately called her action “illegal” and “unjust” and said he would start a legal process to counter it.
Choo visited the press room of the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office at about 6 p.m. and briefed reporters about her decision.
“The Ministry of Justice conducted an internal investigation into various allegations that Yoon had broken laws and confirmed serious and grave illegalities committed by the prosecutor general,” Choo said.
Choo said the internal probe found that Yoon had made unethical contact with the owner of a media company, in violation of the prosecution's code of conduct. Yoon also conducted illegal surveillance activities against judges presiding over high-profile cases — including the trial of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, Choo said.
She also accused Yoon of trading information with the media and refusing to cooperate with the ministry’s internal probe into his activities.
“We confirmed that his dignity and confidence in maintaining political neutrality as the prosecutor general were violated,” Choo said. “Public trust in political neutrality is crucial for the prosecutor general [...] but he was repeatedly named as an opposition presidential candidate and speculations were high that he was campaigning for his presidential ambition.”
Choo argued that a remark Yoon made on Oct. 22 at the National Assembly could be interpreted as a declaration that he will start a political career after his term.
“While he was ranked high in polls as a presidential frontrunner, he made no active efforts to dismiss public distrust about his political neutrality and abetted the situation,” Choo said. “As the highest supervisor of the prosecutorial administration, I concluded that Yoon is no longer acceptable to perform his duty as the prosecutor general."
Shortly after Choo’s press briefing, Yoon issued a statement through the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office that he will start a legal process to counter her actions.
“I have done nothing shameful,” he said. “I have done my best for the political neutrality of the prosecution.”
Under the law governing the prosecution, Choo has the power to refer Yoon to a disciplinary committee. But it's the first time that a justice minister has ever evoked the process to punish the country's top prosecutor.
Clause 3, Article 7 of the Act on Discipline of Prosecutors states, “Disciplinary action against a public prosecutor who is the prosecutor general and imposition of disciplinary additional charges shall be requested by the minister of justice."
The Ministry of Justice is tasked with establishing the disciplinary committee under the law. The committee is comprised of seven members, including a chairperson and three reserve members.
The minister of justice will chair the committee. The committee will also include the vice justice minister and two prosecutors named by the justice minister. The minister will also name a lawyer, a law professor and a person with profound knowledge and experience on the committee.
The Blue House said Tuesday that President Moon Jae-in was briefed by Choo shortly before she made the announcement. Moon did not comment on the development, according to presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok.
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