Great day for criminals
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Hong Nam-ki, third from left, Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum, to Hong’s right, and other high-level officials apologize for the alleged insider trading by employees of the Korea Land & Housing Corp. when Byeon was head of the state-run organization.Yeh Young-june
President Moon Jae-in has ordered a thorough crackdown and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun vowed zero tolerance. From the rhetoric, the government looked determined to get to the bottom of the scandal involving employees of the Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) and their alleged speculative investments in real estate in areas undergoing urban housing redevelopment based on inside information. The Moon administration’s sense of urgency is understandable in a case of corruption in the government related to real estate — probably the touchiest issue with voters ahead of crucial mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan next month. But its actions are not coming across as convincing to the people.
A government investigation team is led by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. Its chief Byeon Chang-heum headed the LH when its employees went on a buying spree for plots of land in areas planned for redevelopment before the formal announcement. The ministry’s problem is only going to get bigger as the probe progresses. Land Minister Byeon has defended his former employees, saying they were not informed of the development project and could not profit greatly from their purchases. Such excuses were frequented heard in the authoritarian regime periods.
People cannot understand why the prosecution has been excluded from the investigation. Even pro-Moon progressive civic groups such as the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and the Lawyers for a Democratic Society are demanding that the Board of Audit and Inspection and prosecution spearhead the investigation. They were the very groups who have been calling for the prosecution to yield some or all of its powers over criminal investigations. They have to admit that the top law enforcement agency has more experience and skills in tracking down insider trading than the police.
However, under the revised criminal act dividing investigative authority between the prosecution and police, the LH case is beyond the jurisdiction of the prosecution. The prosecution’s direct investigation is restricted to six major types of crimes, including on elections. Although the government can make an exception and invite the prosecution in for this case, it is unlikely to do so because that would contradict its die-hard crusade for prosecution reforms, meaning weakening of prosecutors across the board. The investigation will be carried out by the Land Ministry and the police will follow up. In the process, the prosecution’s expertise in probing such cases won’t be employed.
An investigation into the government’s suspicious travel ban on former vice justice minister Kim Hak-eui also has been transferred to the fledgling Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO). The case will have to wait until the new agency is fully staffed. It will certainly hang fire until the new investigation office decides to take it on or return it to the prosecution or assign it to the police. In the meantime, the prosecution would have to step aside. This cannot be taken lightly as an inevitable procedural vacuum during a transition.
Such problems will likely recur over and over. Senior public officials could be involved in cases whether they are investigated by the prosecution or another investigative agency overseeing serious crimes or the police. Since all cases related to senior government officials must go to the CIO, further investigations will be stalled after initial investigations. The CIO would have to start over, causing a waste of time and resources and possibly the ruin of investigations. Lee Seong-yun, head of the Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office and Moon’s ally, insists that the case with former vice justice minister Kim should not return to the prosecution.
The case should be handled by the CIO, he argues. Lee himself is implicated in the case. Here, a potential defendant is making orders where the case should go.
Such farcical developments are the results of the so-called prosecution reforms the Moon administration has been obsessively pursuing over the last four years. The new system has exposed critical problems even before it takes off. Criminals will be absolutely tickled by the incongruities and loopholes in the system. We are seeing a movie-like scene where mobs party after the removal of a righteous prosecutor and police officer.