The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Korea’s Government and Top Prosecutor Clash Once Again

The country has been divided as the government and prosecutor general tussle over prosecution reform.

Mitch Shin
South Korea’s Government and Top Prosecutor Clash Once Again
Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol, who ranks third in early polls for South Korea’s 2022 presidential election, has been asked to leave office by officials in the ruling Democratic Party, including Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae.

The Justice Ministry has been feuding with the Supreme Prosecutors Office, led by Yoon, since last year, when he was appointed as prosecutor general by President Moon Jae-in. Yoon’s prosecutors have strongly investigated those surrounding Moon. Most prominently, Cho Kuk, Choo’s predecessor as justice minister and the first senior presidential secretary for civil affairs in the Moon administration, and his family members were subject to harsh scrutiny from prosecutors.

Cho is a symbol of the Moon administration’s push for reform to the prosecution system, which is vested with the right of both investigation and prosecution.

The conflict between the Justice Ministry and Supreme Prosecutor’s Office was aggravated by remarks during a parliamentary audit in October.

Yoon said during the parliamentary audit that he is not subordinate to the justice minister. But under the Public Prosecutors’ Office Act passed in early 2020, the justice minister is clearly the chief prosecutor’s superior. Yoon’s remarks were criticized by the public as evidence of the absolute power of the prosecution.

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Kim Woong, a lawmaker in the main opposition People Power Party who also was a prosecutor, however, said in an interview with JoongAng Ilbo that the hierarchy outlined in the law is only for “job classification,” adding that “the idea that the prosecutor general is a justice minister’s subordinate is feudalism.”

Backing up Kim’s remarks, some pointed out that the term “subordinate” is too much to use in the relationship between the justice minister and the prosecutor general, considering that it implies a person who obeys orders from a boss. They argue that the prosecution should be allowed to be independent of politics and properly investigate cases. If interpreted as a subordinate to the Justice Ministry, the prosecutor’s office can become politicized.

Ha Tae-hoon, a professor at Korea University’s Graduate School of Law, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency that the prosecutor general is systemically under the jurisdiction of the justice minister.

“The Public Prosecutors’ Office Act stipulates that the justice minister directs and supervises the prosecutor general on specific cases, but direction and supervision are not conducted in a horizontal relationship,” Ha said.

Compared to other developed countries, prosecutors in South Korea have long had outsized power. Until the bill was passed in 2020, the South Korean prosecutor’s office was the only one with both investigative and prosecuting power.

That was in part a legacy of the criminal system imposed during the Japanese colonial era. Japan established a criminal system based on the French Criminal Procedure Act, which was enacted in 1808, but the Japanese prosecution continued to increase its power and the result also affected the Korean prosecution.

Following the enactment of the Criminal Procedure Act in 1954, South Korean prosecutors often misused their enormous power, perpetrating human rights abuses due to coercive investigations. As a result, there has been public demand for prosecution reform for over 60 years in South Korea.

To end this, the National Assembly moved to adjust the investigative rights of the prosecution and police at a plenary session on January 13, 2020. The new legislation, including the Criminal Procedure Act and the revision of the Public Prosecutors’ Office Act, signaled the beginning of the reform of South Korean prosecution system. According to the bill, the prosecution’s right to investigate will be handed over to the police, and even high-ranking government officials will be punished if they commit irregularities.

After passing the bill, the ruling Democratic Party and the government have been working on setting up a Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIOH) to punish figures like prosecutors and judges, who previously often escaped prosecution for illegal acts.

However, the main opposition party opposed the bill, saying that the CIOH is likely to disrupt the principle of checks and balances among law enforcement agencies, going against the constitution. Some opposition lawmakers suggested setting up an investigative agency like the FBI in the United States rather than launching the CIOH.

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The bill has been passed, but it is still uncertain when the CIOH will be established. Members of the committee who were recommended by the opposition party have been conducting a de facto veto in the process of selecting the head of the CIOH. The legal deadline for the organization’s launch was July 15.

The high-profile tussle over prosecution reform has put the prosecutor general in the political spotlight. Yoon, who is enthusiastically supported by conservatives, once said that he is not interested in politics and running for election, but he recently mentioned that he is considering how to serve the people after his retirement next year. His remarks suggest a possible presidential bid, experts say.

Yoon is ranked third in the presidential race, even though he has never announced that he intends to run in the election. (Moon, the current president, will not be able to run, as South Korean presidents are limited to one term.)

Meanwhile, some prosecutors and the opposition parties are officially demanding the dismissal of the justice minister, who is determined to achieve reform of the prosecution.

Now that the public’s longstanding desire for prosecution reform has turned into a political game between the two powers, South Korea has been divided into two again.