A politician in a robe
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
To a man standing trial, a judge is like a god. His fate depends on the judge on the bench. But a judge is also an imperfect being, he struggles to find the truth behind contradictory evidence. “A civil case is a headache and a criminal case is a heartache,” a judge once said. That is why the judge hates an accused who lies, and hands down a heavy sentence. If a judge lies, he gives up being a judge.
And yet, the head of our judiciary has lied. After Judge Lim Seong-geun of the Busan High Court said Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su rejected his resignation to allow the ruling Democratic Party (DP) a chance to impeach him, Kim vehemently denied it. But Lim disclosed a transcript of their conversation. Kim apologized and said, “I denied it based on inaccurate memory from nine months ago.”
“Frankly speaking, lawmakers are making a fuss to impeach you,” Kim said in the transcript. “What will the National Assembly say to me if I accept your resignation?” During their 43-minute conversation, Kim mentioned the word “impeachment” six times. Kim did not misspeak because of his fading memory. He lied intentionally. If he is impeached for lying, he has no excuse.
The judiciary has faced fierce public distrust in the past. Kim Chong-in — the opposition People Power Party (PPP)’s interim leader and a grandson of the country’s first Supreme Court Chief Justice, Kim Byung-ro — called the current chief justice “a politician wearing a judge’s robe.”
In “The Divine Comedy,” Dante allowed a heaven to lawyers. If he wrote it again, he would make Chief Justice Kim stand naked in front of the gates of hell, which bear an inscription, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Kim must hear the people’s sighs of despair.
It is an irony that the integrity of the judiciary has collapsed during the tenure of President Moon Jae-in, who was a human rights lawyer championing justice and fairness. Chief Justice Kim handed over the fate of Lim, a judge struggling with poor health, to a legislature acting as the attack dogs of the president. When the abuse of power scandal in the judiciary erupted in 2017, Kim did not hold the members of the judiciary accountable. Instead, he asked the prosecution to investigate the scandal.
Now, those judges have to pay heed to the powers inside and outside the judiciary. On Sunday, Justice Minister Park Beom-kye reshuffled high-level prosecutors without considering Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s opinion. As a result, the ongoing investigations into many cases of power abuse allegedly committed by the powers have lost direction. The judiciary and the prosecution are being shaken to their core at the same moment.
President Moon is primarily responsible for the scandalous lies of the chief justice. Even after winning power, Moon loyalists are still stuck in a state of surreal paranoia that they are under attack by outside forces — a clue to grasping why they are repeatedly carrying out unreasonable purges.
The country’s first Chief Justice, Kim Byung-ro, was very different from the current chief justice. When the Protectorate Treaty between Korea and Japan was concluded in 1905, Kim, a teenager at the time, joined the volunteer army against Japan. He was a patriotic lawyer who offered defenses pro bono for independence fighters. While serving as chief justice during the Korean War, he fought against the imperial power of the president to protect the independence of the judiciary and safeguard the separation of powers. He helped save our democracy from a crisis.
In 1952, President Syngman Rhee attempted to amend the Constitution to lengthen his presidency and arrested Rep. Suh Min-ho, an opposition lawmaker, who led a protest against his move. The National Assembly passed a resolution demanding Suh’s release, but the prosecution rejected. When the case was handed over to a senior judge in the Busan District Court, about 3,000 pro-government activists surrounded the court and threatened to kill the judge if Suh was found not guilty. Then the judge ordered his release, risking his life.
When President Rhee publicly complained to Chief Justice Kim, he rebutted, “Even the Supreme Court chief justice cannot reverse a judge’s ruling. If you think the ruling is wrong, you must file an appeal based on a proper procedure.” The chief justice did not surrender to the president who appointed him.
He was a complete opposite to the current chief justice, who tried to placate the administration even before he faced any pressure. Kim Myeong-su has lost his right to denounce the judges who allegedly made deals with the previous Park Geun-hye administration.
Moon should have appointed an upright person like former Chief Justices Yun Kwan or Lee Yong-hoon to lead the reform of the judiciary, instead of selecting a politician for the post. Yun introduced a warrant hearing system, in which a judge meets a suspect face to face to determine the legitimacy of the prosecution’s request for an arrest warrant. Despite the prosecution’s resistance, the system noticeably reduced unnecessary or groundless detentions. Yun was also a symbol of humility. He was different from the current chief justice, who ordered the judiciary to redecorate the chief justice’s residence with luxurious Italian limestone.
The other chief justice, Lee Yong-hoon, introduced a system in 2005, where testimony in a courtroom is treated more importantly. Under the system, a judge relies on court testimony, instead of documents. “How can a written statement written by prosecutors inside an interrogation room have more power than testimony made publicly in a courtroom?” said Lee, prompting strong resistance from the prosecution. Lee was a genuinely reform-minded leader of the judiciary.
The two changes Yun and Lee brought about were judicial reforms to support the rights of the weak, far more righteous and fairer than the sugarcoated reform of appointing friends of the administration to the leaderships of the court and the prosecution.
The public increasingly desires the politician in a judge’s robe to step down. The people want a dramatic change from President Moon, who offered ample grounds for this crisis. His government should fear public resentment. It is not growing smaller.