May 5, 2022
SEOUL – President Moon Jae-in said in his final TV interview that he wanted to lead a quiet retired life in his country home, forgotten by people. Related to this wish or not, Moon signed into law two bills that many South Koreans believe are designed to protect himself and his colleagues from being subject to legal judgment for what they did while in power.
Moon’s left-wing Democratic Party of Korea with its huge majority strength in the National Assembly has unilaterally completed legislation steps for the two revision bills to strip prosecutors of the right to directly investigate criminal cases in 2 1/2 weeks. Prosecutors are about to turn into an indictment machine without any chance of conducting probes on their own into serious crimes involving powerful people.
This crucial change in the nation’s law enforcement system is taking place at a time when a former top prosecutor is to begin his presidency after a dramatic election victory. The minority People Power Party, perhaps in the euphoria of winning the presidential poll with a tiny margin of 0.73 percentage point, failed to deter the DPK effectively as it blitzed the bills through the unicameral legislature.
A big irony is that President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol had served as prosecutor general under President Moon to wrap up the task of “clearing the evils” of the past conservative administrations. Yoon arrested two former presidents and a number of their deputies, but he went further to probe into Moon’s inner circle for abuse of their fresh power. Yoon was eventually kicked out, but only after he gathered enough public popularity to be recruited by the main opposition PPP six months before the election.
There is little logical explanation as to why the departing leftists had to virtually castrate the prosecution organization in which they had planted as many liberal-minded prosecutors in senior posts as possible over the past years. The shadow of former prosecutor general Yoon must be looming large to cause them to hold misgivings about their future.
During his campaign as the opposition nominee, Yoon vowed not to carry out a political vendetta. However, when the DPK started preparing the legal shield for its leadership immediately after they lost the election, the PPP and conscientious observers saw the outgoing ruling party’s move as a blatant scheme to save President Moon, presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung and their top aides from the long arm of the law for their own past evils.
Thus, a partisan war has kicked off over a conflict of interest between the prosecution and the National Police, but at stake is political hegemony following a change of power. Some in the left-wing camp could have imagined a round of massive arraignments of leftist administrators and politicians in a repeat of what had happened in 2017 following the inception of the Moon administration, if prosecutors retained their power of investigation.
When the National Police take over all ranges of criminal investigation from the prosecution, is it likely that all members of the central and provincial police agencies become so firmly independent from any form of outside influences as the defeated leftists would hope to see? Have they really graduated from the legacies of police atrocities?
These arguments raise absurd questions: Which organization is more politically neutral, the police or prosecution? Will the holders of power find it more difficult to interfere with law enforcement authorities when investigations are separated from the process of indictment, as the new law provides? Can the chief of National Police better withstand political pressure than the prosecutor general?
Since the founding of the Republic of Korea government in 1948, prosecutors have directed and supervised police personnel assigned to law enforcement service while they conduct their own investigations. At present, a total of 2,180 prosecutors in central and provincial offices work with about 6,000 investigation specialists. On the other hand, the 120,000 regular National Police force maintains 25,000 men and women exclusively for investigation duties.
Since the early 1980s when the National Police improved their recruitment and on-the-job training systems, police leaders have held up the slogan of “separation of investigation from indictment,” making strenuous efforts to free their investigation business from prosecutors’ control. In recent years, they seized better opportunities to achieve the goal as the civil society raised the calls for “prosecution reform” focused on protecting human rights in criminal procedures.
Police leaders have constantly complained of insufficient manpower in the area of criminal investigation, particularly with the rise of sophisticated crimes in cyberspace and long-distance fraud such as voice phishing. They are not at all happy about the police taking over cases traditionally handled by the prosecution while the original policing items of murder, robbery, sexual offense, theft and acts of violence alone exceed 400,000 cases a year.
While politicians squabble over the cause of prosecution reform in connection with the risks of political retaliation, the common people are going to suffer from the threats of human rights abuse resulting from worsening manpower problems in the police organization. Conflicts between the two axes of criminal justice will cause a lot of trouble in the course of issuing warrants and requesting reinvestigation for lack of evidence and breach of legal steps.
In the meantime, the extremely sloppy manner of revising the Prosecution Office Law and the Criminal Procedures Law resulted in many loopholes and contradictions with related statutes which will create serious confusions in their applications. Practically all civic organizations concerned with legal justice, including bar associations and jurist societies, now demand an immediate scrapping of the revisions which they determined were undermining criminal justice in this country.
Names of those who would allegedly benefit from the legal and political turmoil, including the 12 people already indicted by the prosecution for various power-related offenses, have been floated on social media posts. One of them, Democratic Party Rep. Hwang Un-ha, a former provincial police chief, confidently predicted that his and others’ cases would “evaporate” when the new law takes effect.
The defective law will remain in force at least until a new Assembly is elected in 2024. The fate of the new law, the ugly product of a political party’s blind egotism, will depend on how politicians at that time will define its usefulness in protecting themselves from any effect of the future changes in power.