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President tells prosecutor general to get on reform wagon

Jan 15,2020
President Moon Jae-in pressed Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl to take more control of reform Tuesday, issuing a public warning that the right to appoint prosecutors belongs to the president and minister of justice.

“Prosecution reform is only possible when the prosecutors themselves act as main agents,” Moon said in a New Year’s press conference. “And the prosecutor general must spearhead the reform in order to bring about changes in not only the customary way of conducting investigations, but also the organizational culture.”

Moon’s remarks followed a series of unprecedented measures taken by the Blue House, Ministry of Justice and the ruling party on the previous day to chip away at the power of state prosecutors.

On Monday, the Blue House asked the National Human Rights Commission of Korea to consider a petition that the prosecution should be investigated for alleged rights abuses when it probed corruption allegations surrounding former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his family.

Later Monday evening, Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae made an abrupt announcement restructuring the prosecution, downsizing 13 key investigation departments that handle high-profile cases. Departments that have investigated close allies of Moon, including Cho and presidential aides accused of having meddled in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election, are among the offices to be shut down.

The ministry also reduced 13 public security investigation departments at 11 regional prosecutors’ offices nationwide to eight departments at seven offices. The reorganization will effectively weaken Prosecutor General Yoon’s pledge to crack down on any attempts by public servants to influence the campaign for the April 15 general election. One hour later, the ruling Democratic Party and its legislative allies railroaded a package of bills designed to take away some investigative powers of the prosecution and give them to the police.

The series of measures on Monday followed Justice Minister Choo’s reshuffle of the prosecution last week, effectively demoting Yoon’s key associates. Senior prosecutors who headed probes into allegations surrounding Cho and the Blue House were reassigned to less important posts.

Moon noted that his systemic reform of the prosecution ended as of Monday with the passage of the laws by the National Assembly. The prosecution’s powers, however, are still too powerful, Moon said, stressing the need to push other kinds of reforms.

Prosecutors will continue to directly investigate major cases and maintain influence over the police probes through its authority to seek warrants even after a new investigation agency for senior public servants is established and its investigative powers are shared with the police based on the newly passed laws, Moon said. The prosecution also maintains its near-monopoly on indictment power over the public, except for judges and prosecutors, Moon continued.

Asked about the confrontation between Choo and Yoon over the reshuffle, Moon sided with Choo. He claimed the reshuffle was a routine process, rejecting media speculation that it was an attempt to obstruct investigations into the Blue House’s alleged abuse of power.

“I want to make this clear. The prosecution has investigative powers. But the justice minister and the president have appointment powers,” Moon said. “The prosecution’s investigative powers must be respected, so do the minister’s and president’s powers to make appointments.”

Asked about Yoon’s performance as prosecutor general for the past six months, Moon said he won the people’s trust by showing no hesitation to probe the current administration.

“He will win more trust if he leads a campaign to change the prosecution’s organizational culture and investigation practices that are criticized by the public, based on the understanding that the prosecution is also an institution that must be under democratic control,” Moon said.

He warned that the prosecution will lose the people’s trust if it focuses attention on certain cases. Since Yoon took office, the prosecution has launched investigations into Cho and his family as well as Moon’s Blue House aides.

At the press conference, Moon expressed his unswerving support for Cho. “An investigation and trial will decide whether he is guilty or not,” Moon said. “But separately from the outcome, I am greatly in debt to Cho for the hardships he had gone through until now.

“I want to make an appeal to the people,” Moon said. “I apologize for having split the nation by appointing Cho as justice minister. But the bills [on prosecutorial reform] are all passed now, and we should let go of Cho. Whether you are supporters or critics, let’s end this controversy.”

The 100-minute media conference was Moon’s third New Year’s press conference at the Blue House. About 200 reporters attended the event.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]