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Justice Ministry stalls request for reshuffle info

Lawmakers upset over unusually slow submission of notice
Jan 23,2020
The Ministry of Justice has been sitting on a request by a lawmaker to submit Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s written opinion on the latest reshuffle of the prosecution, through which Yoon’s allies were removed en masse from leadership.

According to the prosecution officials, Rep. Kim Do-eup, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party’s (LKP) chief negotiator in the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly, made a request to the administration on Jan. 9 that he wants to receive an opinion from Yoon about the Jan. 8 reshuffle of top prosecutors. The Ministry of Justice informed the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to submit Yoon’s opinion, and the prosecution did so on Jan. 13.

The ministry, however, has not handed over the document to the National Assembly as of Wednesday. The situation was seen as out of the ordinary, because the ministry has normally submitted the prosecution’s documents to the legislature on the same day that they are received.

On Jan. 8, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae carried out her first reshuffle of top prosecutors, six days after she assumed office. Yoon’s allies were largely purged from the prosecution leadership, and the reshuffle earned the nickname the “massacre” in media reports.

The Justice Ministry also refused the lawmaker’s request to receive a copy of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office’s written opinion on the planned organizational restructuring of the prosecution, designed to shut down several investigation departments. “It is a matter concerning an internal decision-making process,” the ministry told Kim as it rejected his request.

The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, however, already announced its opposition against the planned restructuring last week. On Jan. 15, the prosecution said it agrees with the general direction of the reorganization, but the investigation departments must be kept because their professional expertise is important.

The Justice Ministry said it is handling the matter based on the existing protocol. “It is true that Yoon’s opinion is yet to be submitted to the National Assembly,” a ministry official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “We will soon submit it based on the system.”

He, however, did not elaborate on the unusual delay.

“If they were following protocol, they should have handed it over as soon as they received it,” said Kim, who worked as a prosecutor for years until 2011 before starting a career as a lawmaker the next year.

“The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office wants to give the document, but the Justice Ministry is obstructing it,” he continued, accusing Choo of abusing power of her office.

According to the law governing testimony and appraisal before the National Assembly, state offices are prohibited from refusing to submit to a lawmaker’s request for information even if it concerns secrets in connection with duty. If an office refuses to submit documents or submits false information, the National Assembly has the right to summon the minister and demand punishment of a responsible official.

The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said it cannot understand why the ministry is delaying the submission. “We did submit Yoon’s opinion to the ministry,” a prosecution official said. “Now that this situation is made public, the ministry will soon hand it over.”

Lawmakers are upset about the situation. “Are they saying the National Assembly doesn’t have to know what happened during the recent reshuffle by silencing Yoon and other prosecutors?” an aide to a lawmaker said.

It is not the first time that the Justice Ministry has delayed its submission of documents demanded by the National Assembly. Cho Kuk, when he was Choo’s predecessor, delayed submission of indictment papers of his wife to the legislature. Chung Kyung-sim was indicted on charges of forging documents to help her daughter’s college admissions.

After Cho was criticized for delaying the submission intentionally, the ministry submitted it one week later on Sept. 17, 2019.

Meanwhile, an analysis by another LKP lawmaker showed that the latest reshuffle was indeed an extraordinary measure, although Choo has said that it was routine for appointments to fill vacancies.

According to Rep. Joo Kwang-deok, the analysis of top prosecutors’ tenures over the past decade showed that it was unprecedented for the ministry to replace numerous senior officials of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office at once. Yoon’s deputy was replaced only after 166 days, the shortest period in the history of the prosecution.

Joo said Wednesday that the average tenure of 10 deputy heads of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office from 2009 till early this year was about one year. Kang Nam-il, appointed to the post on July 31 after Yoon took office earlier that month, was appointed as the head of the Daejeon High Prosecutors’ Office on Jan. 8. He served the post for five months - or 166 days.

The deputy head of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office is considered the second most powerful official who assists the prosecutor general. It has been a tradition that the deputy head serves the job for one or two years, unless the prosecutor general is changed. Kang’s predecessor, Bong Wook, assisted Yoon’s predecessor Moon Moo-il for two years - the full tenure of a prosecutor general.

The latest reshuffle also broke the tradition that heads of the anticorruption department and public security crimes department, which handle high-profile cases, remain as long as their cases are ongoing.

Han Dong-hoon, head of the anticorruption department, and Park Chan-ho, head of the public security crimes department, were sent to posts outside Seoul in the Jan. 8 reshuffle, after only five months on the job. Han was heading the probe into the corruption scandal of Cho and his family, and Park’s team was investigating the Blue House’s alleged influence over the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election. Both cases are still ongoing, although the chiefs were replaced.

It was also rare for Choo to replace the chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office at the same time with the top officials in the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. At the beginning of the Moon Jae-in administration, top prosecution officials were reshuffled, but Yoon, who was the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office at the time, kept his job. The Justice Ministry said the decision was to protect the continuity of ongoing probes. At the time, Yoon’s office was investigating corruption scandals of former President Lee Myung-bak.

“It is an irrefutable obstruction of justice and political retaliation when prosecutors were demoted in the middle of their investigations into the president and his associates,” said Rep. Joo.

The LKP has submitted a petition to the prosecution to investigate Minister Choo for abuse of power, and the Seoul Western District Prosecutors’ Office has begun a probe.

“A reshuffle of the prosecution largely concerns discretion of the justice minister,” said Lee Wan-gyu, a lawyer who had served as the deputy head of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office. “It will be hard to apply the abuse of power charge. The key is whether the prosecutors can find evidence that Choo had an intention to obstruct the probes.”

BY LEE GA-YOUNG, PARK SARA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]