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Thu Jul 2, 2020, 08:05 PM

Battle for Control of South Korea's Justice System

Last edited Fri Jul 3, 2020, 08:35 PM - Edit history (1)

South Korean Legal Crisis - Can Justice Minister Chu Mi-ae restrain Supreme Prosecutor Yoon Seok-yeol?

Currently, one method by which the flagging right wing in South Korea attempts to check the growing power of the left is through the power of the Supreme Prosecutor's Office.(1) The current chief prosecutor of South Korea, Yoon Seok-yeol, was appointed by democratic President Moon Jae-in, perhaps without having properly vetted the candidate.(2) President Moon at Yoon's investiture expressed a strong desire that Yoon exercise his office in an impartial and unbiased manner so that the public interest in justice would be well served. However, Yoon is a conservative. He openly supported Na Kyung-won, and Hwang Kyo-ahn, leaders of the right wing party in South Korea, in the last general election, which appeared somewhat inappropriate under the circumstances. The conservatives lost the April 15 election when the Democratic Party won an unprecedented landslide victory in the National Assembly. Both Na and Hwang lost their campaigns for seats in the 21st National Assembly.

Recently, investigative reporting revealed recent examples of political manipulation of the prosecution process to the detriment of the reputation of the administration of criminal justice in South Korea. A flagrant injustice in the spotlight in this regard was the prosecution of former Prime Minister Han Myeong-suk convicted of financial misconduct. There is considerable evidence her conviction was obtained by perjured witness testimony solicited by the prosecution. PM Han's unjust prosecution only recently came to light. She had already served her two year sentence in prison and been released.

The more recent case is that of Yoo Shi-min, a high profile figure on the left due to his prominent position as director of the No Mu-hyun foundation. In the latter case, a reporter for A Channel News, allegedly acting on behalf of the prosecution attempted to solicit perjured testimony against foundation director Yoo to facilitate prosecution for financial crimes. The offending reporter Lee Dong-jae, was reportedly fired by Channel A News on June 25. Three other Channel A employees allegedly implicated in the plan to one degree or another, received suspensions or reprimands. Channel A News is a subsidiary of the conservative Dong A Media group. Complaints were filed against Channel A's reporter, and against a senior prosecutor for his alleged involvement in the scheme to extort perjury for use at trial against Yoo. The accused prosecutor, Han Dong-hun, is allegedly very close to Supreme Prosecutor Yoon Seok-yeol. For shorthand purposes the episode is commonly referred to as the Channel A News case.

The Channel A case stands for a more generalized political corruption of the Chief Prosecutor's Office referred to as (unlawful) press- prosecution alliance.(3) The major conservative mainstream media giants, Dong A, Chosun, and Choongang media groups are allegedly the principal platforms for distributing false, prejudicial, or misleading inside information, from prosecutors conducting investigations to stigmatize targeted political rivals of the right. After creating a public uproar with inflammatory accusations, the prosecutions then are carried out employing evidence obtained by coercing witnesses who typically are already in jail or in prison after convictions for fraud, financial crimes and the like. False testimony is induced by threats against the prisoners or their family members, or promises of favoritism from the prosecution offices.

(Source- 뉴스썰TV, 4.27) Supreme Prosecutor Yoon Seok-yeol (right) greeting prosecutor Han Dong-hun, (far left).

The Channel A case initially had been referred to the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's Office for investigation. Because the case involves alleged political manipulation by the Chief Prosecutor's Office, and the suspected involvement of Han Dong-hun, allegedly Yoon Seok-yeol's right hand man, Yoon immediately attempted to take supervisory control of the case. His first inclination was to put the Human Rights division of his office in control of the case. (Han protested he was being slandered). The Seoul Central District Senior Prosecutor and other prosecutors in that branch office are reportedly "outsiders" not loyal to Yoon. In June of this year, Yoon's next step was to recruit senior prosecutors and jurists as nominees, mostly related to his office in some way, to become members of a so called Board of Experts to review and consider the evidence in the case. Efforts by the subordinate Seoul Central District branch office to obtain a warrant of arrest for the Channel A reporter, or subpoena prosecutor Han were ignored. The case has became bogged down in a bureaucratic power struggle between the Minister of Justice Chu Mi-ae, and Supreme Prosecutor, Yoon Seok-yeol.

(Source- 뉴스반장 7.2 ) Current South Korean Minister of Justice Chu Mi-ae.

Inevitably, this case is linked with other major developments politically. The first is the successful passage of the prosecutorial reform fast track legislation before the end of the 20th National Assembly. The former Justice Minister Cho Guk, was a major proponent of that legislation promoted by the Blue House, President Moon, and the Democratic Party. One of the very purposes of the Review Board for Public Official Corruption was to preclude the unjustified pursuit of political prosecutions demonstrated in the Channel A case. It is not a coincidence then, that the Central Prosecutor's Office initiated charges against former Justice Minister's wife, professor Jung Kyeong-sim, for an assortment of financial crimes, fraud and influence peddling, as the legal reforms appeared on the horizon. Various accusations were also made concerning fraud in arranging her daughter's college admissions and academic credentials. The effort was intended to portray the former Justice Minister and the democrats in general as frauds and hypocrites that needed to be removed from office.

Ultimately, Justice Minister Cho was also indicted as a conspirator and forced by events to resign. He was also accused of abuse of power while in office. Some observers referred to Yoon's prosecution of the sitting Justice Minister and his spouse as a "coup d'etat." There are reports, regarded as a credible, that Yoon personally ordered Cho Guk's prosecution. Cho's wife, who was jailed on a warrant, is disabled and suffering from the sequalae of an auto accident. She was recently released from jail after six months pre-trial confinement when the judge would not issue another order for confinement. Her lengthy trial resulted July 1 in findings of not guilty on all the major financial crimes of which she was charged. This places her prosecution and that of Cho Guk in the same improper, unlawful and unjust context as the Channel A news case and the prosecution of former PM Han Myeong-suk. The disposition of some other charges involving attempted destruction of evidence, creation of false academic documents, and very thinly based technical charges against Minister Cho for acts while in office, are not clear at this point as the trials and litigation are ongoing. A distant relative of Cho Guk, Cho Beom-dong, was convicted of securities finance violations and received a four year sentence. A personal financial advisor to Prof. Jung received an eight month sentence for concealment of evidence, computer disc drives.

In any case, the outcome of the Cho related trials is not dispositive for Yoon or his former senior prosecutor Han. The faltering case just presents more grist for the public discontent with Yoon's way of doing business. It is the order issued today by the current Justice Minister Chu Mi-ae which is intended to remove Yoon's authority or that of anyone in his office to interfere with the investigation of the Channel A News scandal. The Justice Minister has elevated the status of the chief of the investigation team at the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's Office to an independent investigator and the Supreme Prosecutor will only get a report when the investigation is complete. The second major element of the Justice Minister's command to Yoon Seok-yeol is to adjourn the so called expert's group to evaluate evidence collected in the case. According to the brief accompanying the order, the recruitment and selection process of this group from within the Chief Prosecutors Office, was not in accordance with legal regulations, was conducted arbitrarily, and did not warrant the public trust under the circumstances. Additionally, it wasn't appropriate in light of the existing jurisdiction of the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's Office for the Supreme Prosecutors Office to conduct a parallel investigation, organize the so called "experts group" or meetings among chief prosecutors designed to affect the outcome of the investigation in light of the Supreme Prosecutor's Office close relationship to the subject of the investigation. In essence, can the Supreme Prosecutor's Office investigate itself? Can it investigate the actions of prosecutors known to be a part of the Supreme Prosecutor's inner circle? Can it select impartial investigators from its own ranks? The answer is clearly no. Public trust and confidence in the Surpreme Prosecutor's office is nonexistent at this point.

It remains to be seen what further obstructions Yoon and Han can place in the path of a credible and effective investigation into these matters which has as its ultimate object restoration of public faith in the offices of prosecutors throughout South Korea, and the administration of justice free from political bias. Some analyst's are anticpating a resignation at some point from Yoon. But if he resigns, he will no longer be in a position to create roadblocks to the investigation, and the relationship of mutual support with Han may be placed in jeopardy.

1)It is probably preferable to translate the position as Director of the Chief Prosecutors Office or Prosecutor General. In light of the excessive power demonstrated by the office over the years, the blog opted for the term Supreme Prosecutor, which political pundits have indicated is a customary practice [ 검찰총장 v. 검찰창장 ] that should be left behind. 추다르크 수사지휘권 발동! 윤석열총장 떨고있나?; @8:35 시사건건 downloaded from youtube 7.2.20.

(2) Prosecutor Yoon's reputation for integrity is somewhat tainted by association with allegations of fraud by his mother in law and spouse in past business translations. Critics in South Korea contend that their ability to get away with past financial crimes rested on trading on Yoon's status as a senior prosecutor. These past alleged transgressions have been rendered moot, for the most part, by the statute of limitations.

(3) ( 언찰유착 ) press prosecution collusion.


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