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Prosecutors’ resistance grows over Choo’s plan

Feb 19,2020
War clouds are gathering as Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae prepares to meet with top prosecutors and discuss her controversial plan to separate their powers of investigation and indictment.

Choo will host a meeting with heads of six high prosecutors’ offices and 18 district prosecutors’ offices nationwide on Friday to discuss her plan. Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl has turned down her invitation.

During a press conference last week, Choo abruptly unveiled her plan to reform the criminal justice system by separating prosecutors into two groups - one in charge of investigations and another in charge of indictments. Following criticism that Choo had disregarded any consultations with prosecutors, the ministry set up the meeting on Friday.

It is the first time in 17 years for a justice minister to host such a meeting. Kang Kum-sil, justice minister in the Roh Moo-hyun government, hosted a similar meeting in June 2003 to discuss prosecutorial reform, and the prosecutor general at the time, Song Kwang-soo, attended. Because Kang’s reform initiative was in its initial phase, participants including Song kept their protests to a minimum. But conflict between the ministry and prosecutors snowballed over the following year as prosecutors publicly resisted reforms.

Prosecution sources predicted a stronger clash on Friday. They said prosecutors are already enraged over Choo’s political purges of Yoon allies and those who investigated key members of the Moon Jae-in administration. “She is hosting a meeting to discuss a topic that we can never accept under any circumstance,” said a senior prosecution official. “I am afraid attending the meeting only serves her purposes.”

Experts said Choo’s summoning of top prosecutors could be in violation of the law. Article 8 of the Prosecutors’ Office Act says, “The Minister of Justice shall, as a chief superintendent to supervise prosecutory affairs, direct and supervise prosecutors in general, and with respect to specific cases, direct and supervise only the Prosecutor General.”

“Summoning the top prosecutors for a meeting is going beyond general supervision,” said a lawyer who has served as a lawmaker. “If the prosecutor general does not attend it, I wonder if the meeting has any legitimacy.”

Another lawyer said the fundamental role of the prosecution essentially falls under the jurisdiction of the judiciary. “That is why the law made clear that the minister, a member of the administration, cannot intervene.”

Some predict that Choo will face a more powerful backlash than she expects. “The prosecutors could raise sensitive issues such as the ministry’s attempt to weaken the prosecution,” said Kim Jong-min, a prosecutor-turned-lawyer. “It can turn into a catastrophe.

“It seems that Choo is taking a big risk for the sake of her own ambitions and that of the administration,” Kim said. “If I were advising her at the ministry, I would never plan such a meeting. I would try to stop her.”

Top prosecutors say they will attend the meeting and challenge Cho. “I will attend the meeting,” said a head of a district prosecution office in Seoul. “I will clearly tell our opinions.”

Rank-and-file prosecutors said Choo’s plan is destined to bring chaos to the criminal justice system because a prosecutor who investigates a case and one assigned to make an indictment can have different opinions. Prosecutors said such discrepancies will violate the principle of uniformity of public prosecutors - a principle that each and every prosecutor shall constitute an individual unitary hierarchy with the prosecutor general as the apex.

They also said that prosecutors’ powers to indict are given by the law and the ministry cannot limit them with subordinate regulations and ordinances.

“Taking away the right to make an indictment from a prosecutor and ordering him to only investigate means he should be a cop,” said a lawyer who once headed a prosecutors’ office. “Separating the two roles will also increase the possibility of misjudgments.”

Others said it does not make sense for a prosecutor to decide whether to indict a suspect or not only based on a few days of paperwork review, especially when months of investigation produce lengthy records. They also worry that a prosecutor who only makes an indictment will perform worse in a trial than a prosecutor who actually investigated the case.

Prosecutor General Yoon, when he visited the Busan District Prosecutors’ Office on Thursday, told prosecutors that he opposes the plan. “Investigation is a concept belonging to indictment,” said Yoon. “Preparing for indictment and a trial is a prosecutor’s job. Investigation and indictment cannot be separated.”

The prosecution also complained that the Ministry of Justice has not offered details of Yoon’s plan. “Unless it gives us a more specific plan, it is impossible to have a discussion,” an official from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said.

A senior Justice Ministry official said it does not have a specific plan. “We are preparing it,” he said. “Now that the minister raised the issue, the meeting with top prosecutors will become a chance to collect their opinions.”

Prosecutors said they want a safeguard mechanism to guarantee transparency of the meeting, because they don’t want to be misrepresented as supporting the plan. Some even demanded that the meeting be aired live, but the ministry rejected that. Others are demanding that minutes of the meeting be released later to accurately make public their stances.

Meanwhile, Yoon will visit Gwangju on Thursday, on the eve of Choo’s meeting with top prosecutors, and meet with aides recently demoted from powerful posts in Seoul.

According to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, Yoon will visit the Gwangju High Prosecutors’ Office and Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office and meet their heads. The heads of the Jeju and Jeonju district prosecutors’ offices will attend the meeting as they are under the supervision of the Gwangju High Prosecution Service.

Jeju Prosecution Head Park Chan-ho and Jeonju Prosecution Head Noh Jeong-yeon are both Yoon’s former aides at the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office. Before Choo’s reshuffle sent Park to Jeju last month, he was the head of the public security department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, investigating allegations that the Blue House abused its power to influence the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election and help a friend of President Moon Jae-in win.

Gwangju is the second destination on Yoon’s national tour. His first destination was Busan, where he also met with key associates purged in last month’s reshuffles. During his meeting with Busan prosecutors, Yoon challenged Choo’s idea of separating the prosecutors’ powers of investigation and indictment.

In Gwangju, Yoon will also meet with Moon Chan-seok, head of the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office, who openly attacked Choo’s ally last week. At the prosecution leadership meeting on Feb. 10, Moon condemned Lee Sung-yoon, the new chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, for having refused the prosecutor general’s order to indict a Blue House secretary. Last month, Lee rejected Yoon’s order three times to indict Choe Kang-wook, presidential secretary for civil service discipline, on charges of helping former Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s son apply to law schools by issuing false internship certificates. After Lee refused to authorize the indictment, Song Gyeong-ho, third deputy head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, signed it on Jan. 23.

Moon is a well-known prosecutor of financial crimes. Before Choo sent him to Gwangju, he was the head of the planning and coordination department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. He represented the prosecutors’ position about the administration and ruling party’s campaign to weaken their investigative powers. Many predict his resistance to Choo’s plan at the Friday meeting.

BY KANG KWANG-WOO, PARK SA-RA AND SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]