Yoon suspended, Justice Minister Choo offers to resign
Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl is promising an aggressive legal battle after a Justice Ministry disciplinary panel suspended him for two months for ethical and legal lapses Wednesday.
“They used an unlawful procedure to kick out a prosecutor general, whose tenure is guaranteed by law, and announced an unfair, illegal conclusion based on unsubstantiated reasons," Lee Wan-kyu, one of Yoon’s lawyers, said in a statement sent to journalists Wednesday. "The prosecution's political neutrality and independence and rule of law are gravely damaged.
“Yoon will reverse this wrongful decision through a process stipulated in the Constitution and relevant laws,” the statement said.
A disciplinary panel convened by the Ministry of Justice announced around 4 a.m. that it found Yoon guilty of four counts of ethical and legal misconduct, including ordering illegal surveillance of a judge and violating his duty to maintain political neutrality. The panel said Yoon should be suspended for two months.
Later in the day, President Moon Jae-in approved the panel's decision, formally suspending Yoon from duty. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae also expressed her intention to step down from her post. The Blue House said Moon will take time to think about whether he will accept her resignation or not.
Last month, Justice Minister Choo raised six counts of alleged misconduct against Yoon and started the disciplinary process against him. She suspended Yoon, but the top prosecutor won a court injunction to return to his post after a week.
Yoon has denied all charges. He did not attend any of the hearing sessions and was represented by three lawyers.
The hearing began Tuesday morning, picking up from an inconclusive session held last Thursday, to decide whether Yoon should be penalized for the allegations.
The panel took 17 hours and 30 minutes to reach a decision that Yoon should be suspended. The decision was announced at 4 a.m. on Wednesday.
Like a real court trial, the four-member panel heard testimony from witnesses and arguments from Yoon's lawyers. Yoon’s lawyers also had a chance to question the witnesses.
After the questioning of witnesses ended around 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Yoon’s lawyers asked for another session to be scheduled to examine new evidence and make rebuttals. The panel, however, told them that the hearing would be concluded without any further session and gave an hour to the lawyers to prepare a final argument. Yoon’s lawyers protested, saying the panel was making an impossible request. They walked out of the hearing without making a final argument.
The panel reconvened around 9 p.m. and approved the two-month suspension after a seven-hour deliberation.
“Based on evidence, we concluded that Yoon is guilty of four out of six charges and decided the punishment,” Chung Han-joong, a law professor who chaired the panel, said after the hearing ended Wednesday.
The panel accepted Choo’s accusations that Yoon had ordered illegal surveillance of a judge; obstructed the prosecution’s internal inspection into an allegation that a prosecutor, one of his close associates, had colluded with a journalist to blackmail an informant; obstructed the prosecution’s probe into that allegation; and breached his duty to maintain political neutrality.
The panel also concluded that Yoon was culpable of the remaining two charges but decided not to punish him.
“The lawyers were given an hour to prepare their final argument, but they gave up the opportunity by saying they needed more time,” Chung said Wednesday after announcing the ruling. “It was undesirable to spend a long time on this unfortunate incident since the people are already going through a painful time due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so we made a ruling today.”
Chung admitted that the panel members disagreed on how severely to punish Yoon. “After a lengthy discussion, we settled on a two-month suspension,” he said.
In a phone interview with the JoongAng Ilbo later Wednesday, Chung stressed that the process was legitimate, dismissing Yoon’s criticism that the panel was operated unfairly. He stressed that he operated the process free of any influence by Justice Minister Choo or the ruling party. Chung was named by Choo to chair the panel on behalf of her, since she cannot participate in the process because she was the petitioner.
He also said one of the four panel members abstained from the decision-making process to punish Yoon. “Because Shin Seong-sik, head of the Anti-corruption Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, abstained from voting, I, Vice Minister Lee [Yong-gu] and Professor Ahn Jean made the final decision.”
Chung said the panel actually showed leniency to Yoon, taking into account his accomplishments so far. “Some say that the punishment is too weak,” he said.
He also said the relatively short two-month suspension took into account Yoon’s remaining tenure. Yoon’s two-year term ends next July.
“Honestly, I regret taking this job,” Chung told the JoongAng Ilbo. “But I made a fair decision.”
Although the panel handed down a two-month suspension earlier in the morning, Yoon spent Wednesday in his office. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said Yoon will perform his duties until the suspension is finalized.
Any action stronger than a warning requires an approval from President Moon, who appointed Yoon to the office in July 2019. Justice Minister Choo recommended the punishment to Moon Wednesday afternoon, and the Blue House said the president signed off the suspension.
The decision will be tricky politically for Moon. His approval ratings have plummeted over the past month because of the administration’s campaign to force Yoon from office.
Nine former prosecutor generals on Wednesday issued a rare statement to protest Yoon’s suspension. “We believe this situation will leave an indelible stain on the rule of law,” they said.
A prosecutor general’s tenure must be respected at all cost, they said. “The tenure, introduced by the National Assembly in 1988, is the final mechanism guaranteeing the prosecution’s neutrality and independence of an investigation,” they said. “Due to this disciplinary action, the tenure of the prosecutor general, guaranteed by law, will be stopped forcibly. It will also set a bad precedent that a prosecutor general, from now on, will have a hard time making decisions based on his beliefs, free from political influence.”
The nine who signed the statement included Kim Kak-young, who served as the prosecutor general for the Kim Dae-jung administration in 2002. All four top prosecutors of the Roh Moo-hyun administration and Moon Moo-il, the first prosecutor general for the Moon administration and Yoon’s immediate predecessor, also signed.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) said it respected the disciplinary panel’s decision. “We hope this disciplinary action will lead to reforms, where the prosecution will decide to protect human rights and equality before the law,” said Rep. Choi In-ho, spokesman of the DP.
The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) deplored the latest development and held Moon responsible. “He is pretending as if he is not involved in this process,” Rep. Joo Ho-young, floor leader of the PPP, said. “But, the people know very well that Moon is actually the mastermind of this crisis.”
He said the administration now has a “magic wand that can be used to purge any prosecutors who investigate crimes committed by key members of the administration.”
BY SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]