Not a good start
A case involving Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office head Lee Seong-yun and a prosecutor under his command — both suspected to trying to thwart the prosecution’s investigation into the Moon Jae-in administration’s alleged illegitimate travel ban on former Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-eui in 2019 — has been transferred to the new Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO). The Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office said it sent the case to the new law enforcement agency according to the CIO Act, which requires investigation agencies to transfer cases involving prosecutors if they involve suspicions about prosecutors. As a result, however, an ongoing investigation by the prosecution suddenly came to a halt.
Concerns were raised after the ruling Democratic Party (DP) authorized the CIO to wield its rights to both investigate and indict and take away sensitive cases from the prosecution and the police after the DP won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last year. The ripples of this major decision are starting to spread. Lawmakers must fix the law.
It is shameful that Lee, a top prosecutor under suspicion of wielding undue influence on the prosecution, and a subordinate under suspicion of manipulating a document to enforce a travel ban on the minister, both volunteered to become the first targets for investigation by the CIO. Though they are suspects now, they are trying to send the message that prosecutors in the field trust the CIO more than the prosecution. Moreover, Lee is the chief of the largest prosecution office in the country. His expectations that the CIO would treat him more favorably than the prosecution — and an assumption that the CIO’s investigative capability is weak — almost certainly played a part in his request that their case be handled by the new investigation office.
The CIO is not ready to start any investigation as only its head and deputy head have been appointed. The CIO said it will be able to launch an investigation of the case on the illicit travel ban as early as April. If the CIO decides to put the case into the deep freeze, justice will be delayed. That does not meet the original goal of the extra law enforcement agency to get to the bottom of cases involving high-level officials to punish them.
If the CIO is not willing to take on the case properly, it must return it to the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office as soon as possible. The CIO Act stipulates that it can send back cases to other investigative agencies. On Tuesday, Kim Jin-wook, head of the CIO, promised to look into the case. The public is watching.