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Injunction blocks disciplinary action against South Korea's Prosecutor General

A South Korean court has created turmoil on the left by issuing a preliminary injunction against the disciplinary commmittee's judgement that Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol, violated his professional duties by improperly investigating judges and failing to the maintain political independence of his office. Other specifications charging his interference in cases where he, his family or subordinates had an interest, and therefore a professional conflict of interest were not addressed by the disciplinary committee. Yoon's petition for a injunction was grounded on a contention that he could not be suspended or removed from office by this disciplinary procedure because the Prosecutor General's office was intended to be independent of outside political interference as a constitutional matter. So it appears that the Prosecutor General's office is now some kind of "fourth branch" of government in Yoon's view. Before the injunction was issued many legal scholars regarded the petition for injunction as unlikely to succeed, particularly because Yoon was only temporarily suspended from office for a short period, two months, and was not barred from reassuming his position as Prosecutor General. Some democratic representatives in the National Assembly and Justice Party representatives are now calling for Yoon's impeachment. Justice Minister Chu Mi-ae, who initiated the disciplinary proceeding, nominally Yoon's superior, is also calling for his impeachment.

(Image Source- 열린공감TV) Chu Mi-ae Justice Minister of South Korea (left) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol, her insubordinate subordinate.

Some of the ruling Democratic Party in the National Assembly (174 seats) are calling for the impeachment of Yoon Seok-yeol. Democratic Party leaders however are calling for adherence to the legislative plan to reform the criminal justice process and the offices of prosecutors and judges by implementing the Public Office Corruption Committee, and the separation of investigative and prosecution decisions in law enforcement. The fear is that judges would not confirm a bill of impeachment and that the democratic administration would end in a fiasco. The leaders also wish to stay focused on the worsening pandemic situation in South Korea.

Chu Mi-ae, the Justice Minister. tendered an offer to resign to President Moon Jae-in when the weak two month suspension decision against Yoon for professional misconduct came down from the disciplinary committee. Clearly, the administration was anticipating a stronger disposition such as dismissal from office. The disciplinary committee's determination suggests a compromise verdict acknowledging Yoon's professional misconduct but unwilling to take on the so called "cartel of special interests" dominating the prosecutorial and judicial branches. The committee left it to the courts to take on the so called "Yoon division," within prosecution offices, along with the media and chaebol interests on the right, supporting Yoon. Consequently, Yoon has returned to work and will continue his attack on the democratic administration by implementing new politically motivated investigations and prosecutions in the hope of toppling Moon Jae-in from power, and tarnishing any significant rival potentially running against Yoon during the next presidential election.




Dec. 16: Some clarification from an SBS report on the "four out of six" specifications or charges against Yoon found to be supported by the disciplinary committee are portrayed in this graphic:

Four specifications were found to be substantiated by the disciplinary committeee. The first substantiated charge deals with the creation and distribution of results of unwarranted investigation into judges in the Justice Department. Two other specifications dealt with the so called Channel A News incident, in which a reporter for Channel A, Lee Dong-jae, corresponded with a defendant in jail for financial crimes and threatened the defendant or otherwise improperly attempted to induce him either directly or through his agent mulitple times to commit perjury to incriminate Yoo Shi-min, a well known liberal media pundit and director from the No Mu-hyun foundation. It is alleged that the Yoon's close subordinate Han Dong-hun coordinated these unlawful activities with the Channel A reporter. Subsequently, Lee and Han were placed under investigation. The two specifications charged that Yoon interfered with prosecutors investigating the Channel A incident, and interfered with the investigation itself. The fourth charge found to be supported by the committee was that Yoon harmed the political independence of the prosecutors office.

Two specifications of misconduct of the six were not found by the court. The findings appear not to have been addressed rather than a finding of no misconduct. Number five alleged improper meeting with owners of the media (subject to investigation or litigation at the time). Number six involved interference with prosecutors investigating his own conduct.

South Korea: Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol suspended for 2 months by Discipline Committee

Yoon Seok-yeol, Prosecutor General of South Korea. Yoon is the current leading contender on the right to be a candidate for president of South Korea.

Yoon Seok-yeol was suspended for two months by a Disciplinary Committee appointed by the Ministry of Justice after a hearing of two days. Justice Minister Chu Mi-ae referred six allegations of professional misconduct to the committee for disposition. The committee found grounds to support four of six charges of misconduct against South Korea's top prosecutor. Some of these six allegations pertained to his earlier service as the Chief of the Seoul Central District Branch Office. The decision to discipline Yoon, the sitting Prosecutor General of South Korea was described as "unprecedented" by YTN news in their brief news bulletin and video. Which of the six charges of misconduct were recognized by the committee was unclear.

Both before and after each of the two days of hearings at which testimony was adduced, Yoon's attorney's moved to cancel the hearing based on a contention that the committee's authority over the prosecutor general was unfounded and unconstitutional. Additionally Yoon asserted in one motion that the hearing officials all had conflicts of interest. According to one report, discussions with Yoon's representatives resulted in three officials being replaced by alternate committee members. A renewed motion on the second day of hearings, was summarily dismissed. Yoon doesn't recognize the committee's standing or decision and intends to challenge the determination in court. The Ministry of Justice indicated that the decision will be forwarded to the Blue House for approval or denial as soon as possible. News accounts concerning the committee hearing process indicated that President Moon's office would or could not modify the decision but only approve or disapprove it.

It's fair to say that democratic and progressive elements in South Korea are disappointed by the decision having looked forward to Yoon's dismissal from office and perhaps other administrative sanctions. Reportedly, there were lengthy deliberations among the board members keeping them up virtually all night until the decision was announced at approximately four am, Seoul time. It does have the appearance of what we in the US call a "compromise verdict." As an administrative disciplinary board, it is likely that some members did not feel comfortable treating Yoon Seok-yeol's transgressions in more decisive fashion. Yoon is currently considered the leading conservative candidate for the next presidential election in South Korea in 2022. An outright dismissal from office would have rocked the South Korean political world. The equivocal nature of the decision ensures the ongoing political controversies and legal maneuvers, concerning alleged criminal acts by Yoon, his wife, and mother in law will continue. Yoon's critics will point to the anticipated opening of the Public Official Corruption Committee which is a new body appointed by the 20th Session of the National Assembly. This body has the authority to hear criminal corruption cases referred for criminal prosecution. Yoon's critics want his case to be the first case heard by the new body. Critics also call for his impeachment by the National Assembly.

Incidentally, the National Assembly introduced a proposed election law requiring prosecutors and judges who wished to run for electoral office to leave their office at least one year before registering as a candidate. This law if enacted would require Yoon to resign in March 2021 in any case if he wishes to run for office.
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