The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Korea’s Prosecution Reform Saga Heads Toward Final Showdown

Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, a political darling of conservatives, will face a hearing over his dismissal amid the Moon government’s final push for reform.

Jenna Gibson
South Korea’s Prosecution Reform Saga Heads Toward Final Showdown
Credit: Pixabay

A disciplinary committee will finally hear the case of South Korea’s Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl on Thursday, after multiple delays and amidst an increasingly tense political atmosphere. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae has been leading the charge to remove Yoon from his position over claims of improper conduct, and has recused herself from the committee as they make their decision on whether Yoon can continue in his role as the head of South Korea’s powerful prosecution office.

Choo originally suspended Yoon in November, citing six different charges of wrongdoing, including meeting with and leaking information to the press, blocking internal investigations, and even conducting surveillance on judges. Yoon was later allowed to return to work while awaiting the disciplinary hearing after a court ruling.

But while Choo and Yoon are facing off in this particular battle, it really represents the culmination of years of partisan fighting over the future of South Korea’s incredibly powerful prosecution office.

How to handle reform of the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office has been a major point of contention dividing the progressive ruling party and the conservative opposition over the last few years. Although he was not the first South Korean president to attempt to tackle prosecution reform, President Moon Jae-in quickly made it a key part of his political agenda after taking office. One of the key architects of the reform plans, Cho Kuk, ended up sparking intense partisan divide, eventually resigning his post as justice minister last fall.

Before eventually being passed, a bill containing major reforms of the prosecutor’s office sparked fierce backlash among ultraconservative parties and their supporters, even leading to riots at the National Assembly building in December 2019.

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A full year later, the battle between the two parties over the future of the prosecution office has only continued to heat up. The Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) was part of that reform, but has not yet been launched amid the continuing tug-of-war between the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Moon administration. Once established, the CIO would be charged with handling cases involving high-level government officials, which supporters hope will be a big step toward removing politics from important judicial decisions.

Yoon has said he will not attend this week’s disciplinary committee meeting in protest, although his legal advisers will attend. For his part, he has claimed that it is actually the Justice Ministry that is injecting politics into this reform battle by targeting him for this investigation.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly is at work to once again push through with a bill that could finally put the CIO into place. Thus far, the committee in charge of selecting the first head of the new CIO has been unable to move forward because two members of the committee affiliated with the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) have exercised their veto power to stall the decision. The new bill, which the National Assembly passed on December 10 despite filibuster attempts from the PPP, removed the veto, allowing the committee to move forward with selecting the first CIO chief and, from there, work to finally get the office up and running.

While he did not comment specifically on the ongoing clash between the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Prosecutor’s office, Moon did apologize this week for creating political confusion around the issue, while emphasizing the importance of wrapping up these major reforms. “I am very sorry as the president for the confusing political situation causing worries among the people when they need to unite their hearts for COVID-19 control and their livelihoods,” Moon said. “Reform of powerful institutions is one of the biggest remaining tasks…If the problem is solved through a democratic procedure and process, democracy will be solidified.”