More than one man
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The liberals are ganging up on Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl to push him out of office. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae has offered to step down and President Moon Jae-in commanded a “new start” between the warring justice ministry and prosecution, suggesting Yoon should quietly come out of the ring. Still, Yoon refuses to surrender and is mounting a legal battle to stop his suspension.
Yoon can not accept a disciplinary action, even a temporary suspension, since that would mean he is admitting to the wrongdoings cited by the Justice Ministry — illegal spying on judges and interference in investigations, for instance. Otherwise, anti-Yoon forces could file criminal charges against him and the new anticorruption agency could make him the first target of its investigation. Yoon has to challenge the charges to protect himself and the entire judiciary system.
Yoon can cite two mentors behind his promise to ensure the prosecution “serves the people,” not the powers that be. One is Lee Myung-jae, a prosecutor general for 11 months in 2002. When Lee was recruited as the chief prosecutor, he asked Yoon, who worked in the same law firm at the time, to go back to the prosecution with him. While he served, Lee only had a law book and outworn briefcase in his office as he was ready to step down at any time. Lee arrested the sons of the first liberal president, Kim Dae-jung, and his own predecessor Shin Seung-nam. When a suspect died during questioning by the prosecution, Lee resigned without any hesitation. Former lawmaker Keum Tae-seop referred to him as the “prosecutor most revered by prosecutors” in Korea.
Kim Ik-jin, the second top prosecutor who served for a year from 1949, is another one Yoon admires. In North Korea, Kim was imprisoned by the Soviet military regime in Pyongyang for anticommunist activity. Korea’s founding President Syngman Rhee seated him as the prosecutor general after he came to South Korea for his history of rebelling against communists. When he learned of brokers paid to frame innocent people as “pro-North Korean” forces, top prosecutor Kim ordered a mass-scale investigation and arrested 108 despite the president’s order to stop.
President Rhee demoted him to head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. Kim did not resign after the demotion so as not to leave a poor precedent of a prosecutor being pushed out by political pressure. Outraged by his recalcitrance, Rhee accused him of orchestrating an assassination attempt on the president in 1952. Kim was imprisoned for 63 days and famously said, “A prosecutor general serves not just the president but the people.” He is still considered the most upright among the past 43 Prosecutors General in defiance of the powers that be.
The administrative court will soon come to its conclusion. Most in the judicial community believe Yoon’s suspension was unjust. There is a famous dictum in the English-speaking justice system: “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” Impartiality must be recognized and acknowledged by others. But the disciplinary action on Yoon was hardly just. More than half, or 54.8 percent, in a public poll did not see the need for Yoon to resign.
Still, we cannot know what decision Hong Soon-wook, the judge in a Seoul administrative court, will come to. I asked two lawyers who worked with the judge.
One said the key would be his judgement on the two-month suspension order. If Yoon had challenged a dismissal order, his request for a court injunction would have been easily accepted, he said. But Yoon already spent a week out of office and stopping the disciplinary action that was approved by the president won’t be easy, given the political ramifications. Hong is known to be prudent and would not wish to get caught up in a political brawl. He may deny Yoon’s request and leave the case to a higher court.
Another lawyer disagreed. If Yoon’s request for nullification of the two-month suspension order is refused by the judge, Yoon’s separate legal case would be concluded after July, when his tenure ends. There is a saying that justice delayed is justice denied. Since a disciplinary action on Yoon is unjust, a reversal of the decision is urgent. Even when an office worker challenges a disciplinary order, the court issues a stay of execution while a review is underway. The disciplining of a top prosecutor whose tenure is legally protected should be much more prudent. A judge must consider social and legal community opinions as well as legal reasoning in judging such an important case. The two-month suspension has been protested by nine retired top prosecutors. Judge Hong would have to take into account the mood.
Both lawyers agreed the disciplinary action on Yoon was unjust and the judge would come to a fair judgment as it would set a precedent. Everyone in the judicial community is aware that Yoon legally challenged the action to protect himself — not to defy the president.