Appointing a special prosecutor

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Appointing a special prosecutor

Kim Tae-kyu
The author is a former senior judge at the Busan District Court.

The public is outraged over the shocking Daejang-dong scandal. While a great number of people are struggling to survive amid the pandemic, a precious few involved in the most lucrative land development project in Seongnam, Gyeonggi raked in an enormous profit up to 1,100 times the money they invested in the project spearheaded by Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung when he was Seongnam mayor. Their exasperation was further fueled by the Moon Jae-in administration’s repeated fumbles in real estate policy.

Public indignation does not stop there. Behind the growing suspicion are a group of high-level lawyers, including a former justice and a prosecutor. Their names appear in the so-called “Five Billion Won [$4.2 million] Club,” which was allegedly given to the elites in return for favors. A case in point is former Supreme Court Justice Kwon Soon-il, who allegedly received 15 million won in monthly pay from Hwacheon Daeyu, an asset management company at the center of the scandal, as a counsel after retiring from the bench at the top court.

Moreover, it turned out that Kim Man-bae, a major shareholder of Hwacheon Daeyu, visited Justice Kwon’s office eight times before and after a trial on Gov. Lee — now presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) — for election law violations. Kwon, who also served as head of the National Election Commission, took part in Lee’s trial probably to help save his political life.

National institutions, whether they be the Supreme Court or the prosecution, have the obligation to clear deepening suspicions on bribing a judge to help draw a non-guilty ruling. And yet, the public is raged over the way the law enforcement agencies have been dealing with the case. Even after the Financial Intelligence Unit at the Financial Supervisory Services (FSS) informed the police of a strange flow of money early this year, the police just sat on their hands for five months. Prosecutors raided Kim Man-bae’s apartment to seize evidence when he was absent, and could not recover the smartphone he dumped. Police officers and prosecutors must thank a whistleblower for submitting a transcript of the conversations among stakeholders over how to divide the massive dividends from the project.

The Moon administration repeatedly requested arrest warrants for suspects and conducted search and seizure in a relentless crusade to root out the “past evils” in the conservative Park Geun-hye administration. But the prosecution does not show such determination over the Daejang-dong scandal even while swiftly investigating suspicions over Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, a leading presidential candidate of the opposition People Power Party (PPP). Public distrust in the prosecution points to the need to appoint an independent counsel to get to the bottom of the scam.

After criticism arose over Gov. Lee’s potential involvement in the scandal with his authority to approve the development project, he portrayed it as “the greatest achievement in history” by the head of a local government. Yet Lee and the DP attributed the scandal to the PPP and refused to appoint a special prosecutor to dig. They claim that if they enact a special prosecutor law to investigate the case, it would take too much time and could evolve into a massive political battle. But that is an excuse.

In fact, there is no need to enact a separate law on appointing an independent counsel. A total of 13 special prosecutors have been appointed so far, but a new enactment is not needed each time. As long as the National Assembly or the justice minister decides to appoint a special prosecutor, they can appoint him without another enactment, according to the Standing Special Prosecutor Act, which was legislated in 2014.

For instance, a special prosecutor was appointed in April to revisit the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking thanks to the Standing Special Prosecutor Act. Once the legislature or the justice minister decides to appoint a special prosecutor, they can immediately start to establish a special prosecutor team. When the decision is made, the president can request an advisory committee to recommend two candidates for the post, and the committee recommends them within five days. Then the president appoints one of them as a special prosecutor within three days. It only takes eight days.

After appointment, a special prosecutor prepares for his job for 20 days — including securing of an office and appointing assistant prosecutors — and investigates for maximum 60 days to determine whether to indict or not. The special prosecutor can extend his or her investigation term for once by maximum 30 days.

The need for appointing a special prosecutor came from public concerns about the impartiality of law enforcement in the investigation of the case. Political consideration cannot outweigh their mission to find the truth.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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