Building a republic of prosecutorsOut of 14 commissioners of the Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) since its founding in 1999, 13 were bureaucrats or experts in the financial field. Overseeing the financial watchdog requires high-level expertise. An exception was a former lawmaker with a civilian activist background under the Moon Jae-in administration. He was short-lived.
A former prosecutor with expertise in financial crimes has been named as the new governor of the FSS. Lee Bok-hyun served as a senior prosecutor at the Seoul Northern District Prosecutors’ Office. After majoring in economics at Seoul National University, Lee passed the bar exam and certified public accountant exam. He had been involved in investigations of bribery at Hyundai Motor, the cheap sale of Korea Exchange Bank to Lone Star and the power abuse of former president Park Geun-hye. He approached companies and financial institutions in the context of financial crime.
With Lee’s appointment, the stalled investigations on Lime and Optimus Asset Managements could pick up. But the FSS’s role goes beyond crime. The Financial Services Commission (FSC) gave high scores to the candidate for his ability to carry out investigations to ensure economic justice. But the financial community could feel intimidated by the new commissioner.
President Yoon Suk-yeol’s favoritism toward prosecutors went too far. He has seated former prosecutors in key posts in charge of personnel affairs and intelligence. His loyalists from top law enforcement have come to dominate ministerial and vice-ministerial posts at the justice ministry as well as at the assistant ministerial-level at the National Intelligence Service, secretary to the prime minister and head of the ministry of government legislation, to name a few. Kang Soo-jin, a professor at Korea University Law School floated as candidate for the head of the Fair Trade Commission, also comes from the prosecution.
The Democratic Party (DP) accused Yoon of envisioning a “republic of prosecutors.” Even the People Power Party (PPP) believes it’s excessive.
Yoon ran for president as soon as he retired as prosecutor general after 26 years in the prosecution. His resource pool could be restricted to prosecutors. But if he seats a former prosecutor at the top of the financial watchdog, he goes overboard. The move goes against the principle of checks and balances. Given the strict work culture of the prosecution, the new administration could fall into a collective mindset.
President Yoon said the principle of appointment is to recruit the right person to the right post. The presidential office ensures it pays heed to critical voices and endeavors to recruit competent figures. Given its past choices, however, it raises questions over what endeavors it has really been making.