A bad day for justiceProsecutor General Yoon Seok-youl resigned on Thursday four months before his two-year tenure ends in July. The Moon Jae-in administration cannot avoid criticism for pressuring him to step down by mobilizing all available means since he started digging up dirt on the powers that be. The government’s move is very reminiscent of past authoritarian governments that President Moon has made a career out of denouncing.
Despite Moon’s embracing of Yoon as “our prosecutor general” in a recent cabinet meeting, his government methodically attacked the top prosecutor after he indicted former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a darling of the liberals in Korea, for abuse of power and corruption involving his family. The Blue House and ruling Democratic Party (DP) joined the chorus in condemning the prosecutor general for his “relentless investigations” of Cho, but the government’s concerted assault on Yoon was even harsher.
Strict investigations of the powers that be is the prosecution’ major duty. Former Prosecutor General Song Kwang-soo under the Roh Moo-hyun administration arrested and indicted core members of his government, but prosecutors were not punished. Instead, many of them were promoted for their courage to dig up corruption in officialdom. As Roh’s senior secretary for civil affairs at the time, Moon must have watched that process more closely than anyone else.
In Moon’s administration, however, prosecutors who led investigations into a myriad of cases involving abuse of power and corruption had to leave the prestigious law enforcement agency. Yoon called himself a “prosecutor general in a vegetative state” when the time came to reshuffle prosecutors over the past 20 months. Justice ministers habitually insulted the top prosecutor, including a suspension of his duty for no reason.
Moon’s recent appointment of a former prosecutor as his new senior secretary for civil affairs was seen as an intention to make peace with the prosecution. But even the new secretary was often passed over in a crucial decision-making process. Yoon lamented the collapse of our justice system after DP lawmakers pressed ahead with a bill aimed at establishing a separate investigation agency targeting six major types of crimes, including corruption and election fraud, to take away investigative rights to such crimes from the prosecution. Yoon’s description of the alarming developments as the beginning of “destruction of our legal system” heralds a pummeling of the top law enforcement agency by the government.
The independence of the prosecution is now ended. Yoon’s statement — “I will do my best to safeguard our democracy and people from now” — probably means he’ll go into politics. With Yoon’s departure from the prosecution, the government will likely appoint a tame new prosecutor general to help neutralize a few prosecutors’ effort to bring the incumbent power to justice. Given its irrevocable lethargy, the opposition People Power Party also cannot avoid its responsibility in the tragic turn of events in our justice system. Voters will hold both parties accountable in elections coming soon.