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Political prosecution must end

May 13,2019
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Ko Dae-hoon
The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

“May 10, 2017, will go down in history as the beginning of the genuine unity of the people,” President Moon Jae-in declared at his inauguration speech two years ago. “Over the past troubling months, many people asked whether this can be called a country. From this very question, I will make a new start as president. From today, I will become a president who is dedicated to building a country worthy of being called a country.”

As Moon was sworn into office, his first national address touched the hearts of many Koreans who believed he would create a new society of unity and coexistence, breaking from past administrations that produced conflict, mistrust and division. As Moon entered the Blue House through a snap election, he promised to reshape Korea by rooting out practices of abusing authority, key vices that crippled the previous Park Geun-hye government.

“The president’s imperial power will be shared as much as possible,” he vowed. “I will ensure that agencies that have great authority remain completely independent from politics. There will be a system to keep these agencies in check so that none of them will be able to wield absolute power.”

As soon as he became president, Moon pointed to the prosecution as the first powerful body that needed to be wiped out of jeokpye, or accumulated evils. Korean prosecutors wield massive power in local society, usually more than what prosecutors in other countries hold. Korean prosecutors basically have all the rights to an investigation: They can investigate a case themselves or command investigations carried out by police, decide whether to end a probe, ask a local court for a pre-trial detention warrant and indict or withdraw an indictment. Prosecutors have the power to impact the fate of a criminal suspect by deciding whether the suspect is worth being investigated, whether they should be pressed of any charges, or whether they must be detained and for how long. The current system has been maintained for over 60 years. It was originally intended not to give too much power to the police following Korea’s independence from colonial Japanese rule.

In a 2011 book on the prosecution’s authority that he co-authored, Moon claimed that prosecutors have bluntly begun to collude with political authorities ever since the Lee Myung-bak administration, adding that prosecutors were acting like the government’s “hunting dog.”

In times of crisis, prosecutors sided with the government instead of carrying out objective investigations. When the so-called “Chung Yoon-hoi report” scandal broke in 2014, revealing allegations that Choi Soon-sil’s ex-husband Chung interfered in state policy through Blue House sources, prosecutors had a chance to crack down on what later mushroomed into the infamous Choi Soon-sil gate that led to Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. Prosecutors at the time received testimony that Choi was the de-facto No. 1 person control of state affairs and that there were other aides of Park who were meddling in government administration. Yet prosecutors turned a blind eye to all that information back then.

During the Lee Myung-bak administration, if prosecutors hadn’t shamed former President Roh Moo-hyun while they were investigating allegations in 2009 that Roh’s family received $6.4 million worth of bribes, perhaps Roh wouldn’t have leaped to his death. Moon, who served as Roh’s presidential chief of staff, said that rigorously investigating previous authorities was akin to revenge. What eventually attracted Moon, a lawyer, to enter politics after Roh died was the prosecution.

“Political prosecutors” have only worsened in the Moon government. Over the past two years since Moon entered office, prosecutors were on the forefront of rooting out jeokpye. Nearly 100 prosecutors were tasked with combing over past cases, which was unprecedented. Even the tiniest transgression was reviewed, and prosecutors aimed at toppling every single figure on Moon’s list of jeokpye, whether by charging them with dereliction of duty or all-out accusing them of being a despicable human being. Throughout that crackdown, nearly 100 people went to jail, including two former presidents and a former Supreme Court chief justice. Four people committed suicide during the investigations. In the words of Max Weber, the Moon government has brandished the state’s “legitimate violence,” and prosecutors who cracked down on jeokpye were credited.

Throughout the years, prosecutors have left some pretty bad marks in various cases due to their heavy influence from the government. But prosecutors within the current administration have shown the worst behavior so far. This is why it is important for prosecutors to give away some of their rights to police, allowing police to carry out independent criminal investigations and close an investigation if they deem necessary. Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il opposes this, claiming that the reform plan “goes against democracy.”

Prosecutors are trying to sway public sentiment to their side by stating that police officers are subpar, that they would lose order if given too much power and that they could misuse their authority such as violating human rights. Moon has now entered his third year in office. Behind every unlucky Korean president were political prosecutors. Now’s the time for Moon to prove that prosecutors don’t always carry out better probes than the police.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 10, Page 35