Falling into its own trap
The author is a political news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
At first glance, the argument that Korea will become a republic of the prosecution seems reasonable since a former prosecutor-general was elected president. Furthermore, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol made pledges to reinforce the prosecution’s power by scrapping a plan to abolish prosecutor control over investigations and guaranteeing the prosecution’s power to draw up its own budget.
Still, it is false that the state prosecution service is an almighty institution as the ruling Democratic Party (DP) argues. The prosecution’s power was largely curtailed by the Moon Jae-in administration. The Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) is in charge of investigations of the powerful, and the prosecution’s control of ordinary criminal cases was restricted after investigative power was redistributed between the prosecution and the police. The prosecution is currently allowed to directly investigate only six types of major crimes, including corruption, economic crimes, violation of laws by public servants, election law violations, crimes concerning procurement and accidents with many casualties. Now the government wants to create a new investigative office dealing with those six major crimes and prohibit prosecutors from investigating any criminal cases in a reckless campaign to deprive the prosecution of its investigative power completely.
The plan gained momentum in late 2020. It was immediately after then-Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae failed to discipline then-Prosecutor-general Yoon Suk-yeol. The bill to make the plan into a law was led by hardline first-term lawmakers. Among them are Rep. Hwang Un-ha, a suspect in an investigation over the allegation that the Moon Blue House had influenced the Ulsan mayoral election, and Rep. Choe Kang-wook, suspected of offering a fake internship certificate to the child of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk.
In the past, criminal suspects had tried to conceal allegations against them or denied them. Today, they are actually raising their heads high and acting bold to dismantle the state prosecution service by claiming that they are politically oppressed. But the plan to completely remove the prosecution’s investigative power withered after Yoon resigned from the prosecutor-general post in March last year.
After Yoon won the March 9 presidential election, the plan was revived. The prosecution and the police sped up their investigations into the suspicion that defeated presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung’s wife had misappropriated Lee’s corporate credit cards and into the allegation that the Moon government abused power to shut a nuclear plant. DP lawmakers loyal to Lee, in particular, were determined that the bill must be passed by May 9 before Yoon takes office and vetoes it.
But a new obstacle emerged. Removing investigative power from the prosecution and creating a new investigation office for the six major crimes were an inseparable pair. Investigative power taken away from prosecutors must be given to someone. But Yoon will appoint the head of the new investigative office after inauguration on May 10. “It will give a vicious hunting dog to the Yoon administration,” said Rep. Cho Eung-cheon, a member of the emergency committee of the DP. “It is like ending up in a larger police agency while trying to avoid a neighborhood police post,” said Cho.
Some proposed that the new investigation office for major crimes should not be created. Others said that the police will become overly powerful when all investigative rights are handed over. Rep. Hwang, a former senior police officer, came up and said, “The police, already overworking, won’t be able to handle more work if the prosecution’s investigative power is completely taken away.” He added, “The investigative power will just disappear. We should just delete the legal basis that gives the prosecution the power to directly investigate.” The establishment of the new investigation office needs to be delayed as dismantling the prosecution’s investigations is more urgent, Hwang said.
He seems to think that major investigations supposed to be conducted by prosecutors — such as corruption and election law violation suspicions — can wait. While trying to hinder an investigation of himself, Hwang is now attempting to ruin the country’s investigative power.
After its opening last year, the CIO has only completed one case. After the investigative power was redistributed between the prosecution and the police, the police’s average period to wrap up a case increased by 8.6 days to 64.2 days.
“It takes nearly a year for the police to send a case to the prosecution for indictment,” said attorney Kim Ye-won of the Disability Rights Advocate Center. “A case was just transferred from here to there over eight times. I have represented criminal suspects for more than a decade, but I have never encountered such a situation so far.”
There are countless examples that the Moon administration’s prosecutorial reform has worsened the ordinary people’s suffering, yet the DP is pushing forward the plan to completely end the prosecution’s direct investigation. It is a kind of path dependency. But the DP’s persistent call to “kill Yoon Suk-yeol” over the past 32 months has made Yoon the next president.
It remains to be seen where the campaign to kill the prosecution will end. But most people are shaking their heads as they watch the DP with 172 lawmakers in the 300-member National Assembly fall deeply into its own trap.