On December 24, Seoul Administrative Court accepted Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol’s request to delay the Justice Ministry’s decision to suspend him for two months. He submitted the request on December 17.
The Justice Ministry’s main reasons for the disciplinary action were Yoon’s order to write documents analyzing judges’ tendencies and obstructing an investigation into cases in which one of his aides communicated with a reporter.
The court said that the analysis over judgement inclinations was very inappropriate, but additional explanatory data is needed. It also added there is room for dispute over the inspection and investigation of the case involving his aide and the reporter, so sufficient hearing should be conducted in the main trial. Yoon’s inappropriate remarks and actions regarding political neutrality were not recognized as cause for disciplinary action. Yoon has been critical of the Moon administration’s efforts to reform the prosecution system.
The court judged that the effect of the disciplinary action is significant in this case, considering the fact that it would be difficult for Yoon to recover from the damage if forced from office for two months before the result of the trial comes out. The Justice Ministry had claimed that leaving Yoon in place could undermine public welfare and threaten fair exercise of prosecution rights, but the court did not accept that argument.
“I deeply appreciate the judiciary’s judgment. I will do my best to protect the spirit of the constitution, the rule of law, and common sense,” said Yoon.
The Justice Ministry is expected to decide whether to appeal the decision soon.
The Blue House issued President Moon Jae-in’s remarks on the court’s decision on December 25.
“President Moon said he respects the court’s decision regarding the return of the prosecutor general to office,” Blue House Spokesman Kang Min-seok said in a press briefing. “Moon also said he apologizes for causing inconvenience and confusion to the people as a result.”
Moon approved the disciplinary action plan for Yoon on December 16 but had to apologize once again for the persistent conflicts between Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Yoon.
“The suspension of two months approved by Moon will be suspended until 30 days from the date of the ruling on the case of the cancellation of disciplinary action,” the court said in its official announcement.
On December 1, the Seoul Administrative Court suspended Choo’s order excluding Yoon from duty, citing the possibility that Yoon could suffer damage that could be difficult to recover from. That was the same reason the court took Yoon’s side last week.
Choo immediately filed an appeal with the court three days later. She finally proposed Yoon’s suspension for two months to Moon. Moon gave his authorization as his broader campaign to reform South Korea’s prosecution system played out in the background.
South Korea is divided, largely based on political ideology, over the Yoon saga, with the conservative opposition backing the top prosecutor.
Within the ruling Democratic Party, opinions are divided on strategies to respond to the court’s decision and Yoon’s arbitrary disobedience to prosecution reform.
Lawmaker Kim Doo-kwan said that the party, which can secure more than two-thirds of votes within the legislature, should impeach Yoon by voting to protect the president. Another Democratic Party lawmaker, Jung Chung-rae, said in a press release on Monday that he proposed an amendment to the Administrative Litigation Act that prohibits an appeal like Yoon’s for suspended disciplinary action if the appeal damages the interests of the lawsuit in the main trial.
Contrary to the opinions of some lawmakers in the party, Democratic Party leaders said they were not considering impeaching Yoon, but vowed to take stronger measures to reform the prosecution.
The opposition, however, welcomed the court’s decision and criticized the Moon government and Choo for their attempts to pressure Yoon to fall into line.
Kim Chong-in, interim head of the main opposition People Power Party, criticized some members of the ruling Democratic Party’s calls for the impeachment of Yoon as an attempt to “destroy the foundation of democracy.”
“If you have complaints about the court’s decision, appeal to the court in accordance with the judicial process,” said Kim in a meeting on Monday, criticizing some lawmakers’ attempts to nullify the court’s decision.
The Korean Bar Association said in a press release on November 26 that it expressed deep concern over Choo’s move to hastily suspend the prosecutor general’s duties and seek disciplinary action without clear and significant evidence regarding the irregularities.
“It is unprecedented in the constitutional history that the suspension of duty and disciplinary action through legal procedures are reached,” the association said, adding that a clear and thorough investigation should come before any suspension and disciplinary action.
Yoon also filed an administrative lawsuit to completely cancel the disciplinary action, but the results are unlikely to come out before July, when his term ends. He will likely complete his term regardless of the outcome of the legal battle.
Yoon has become the ultimate phoenix, who keeps winning in his battles with the government. Some lawyers and political analysts said the saga is a sign that Moon is facing a lame duck situation as his single term draws closer to its end.
Yoon was demoted by the previous government due to his determination to investigate abuses of power. During the Moon administration, however, he got a chance to work in a higher position and finally became the prosecutor general last year.
His famous remark, “I am loyal to the organization, not to a person,” made him a symbol of the prosecution reform, with many viewing him as a perfect model of prosecutor who seems never to kneel before power.
However, public distrust toward the prosecution has grown since Yoon took office. Moon’s push for prosecution reform is still underway amid interference from various groups.