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[Kim Myong-sik] Is Korean police ready for new role?

Jan. 28, 2021 - 05:30 By Kim Myong-sik
Last week, the Korean National Police Agency announced a major personnel reshuffle, involving almost all of its 550 superintendents, the core of the police force. Printed in fine letters, the names and their short and long new titles occupied nearly half of a newspaper page.

The 2021 reassignments of senior police personnel had to be more extensive than in previous years because the KNPA was making a new start with a new organizational structure in three tiers, namely the National Police Agency Headquarters, the National Investigation Service (modeled after the FBI of the United States) and the Local Autonomous Police. The announcement on Jan. 22 was just the first part of what would continue throughout 2021.

However, the KNPA’s 11.97 trillion-won budget for 2021 does not reflect the changeover to the new tripartite system. The National Assembly passed the funding plan for its total of 142,000 police personnel under the KNPA headquarters, 18 provincial and metropolitan bureaus, 255 police stations, and 1,434 police boxes across the country, a week before it revised the National Police Service Law on Dec. 9.

In this situation, serious confusion is unavoidable as new offices are created, personnel are transferred in a massive scale as shown by the bulletin in the newspaper, and operational manuals are being drafted to familiarize the uniformed and plainclothes men and women with their new jobs.

On the same page of the daily were the names of nearly 1,000 prosecutors who were reassigned to district offices across the country in the fourth and final round of a reshuffle conducted by outgoing Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae for her holy task of “prosecution reform.” The transformation of the KNPA was accelerated as it is linked to prosecution reform, which in essence dumped many of the prosecutors’ powers to police.

The actual process of prosecution reform, however hard its schemers may try to whitewash its ulterior motive, was overshadowed by the ugly confrontation between the justice minister and Yoon Seok-youl, the maverick prosecutor general who has brought many of President Moon’s underlings to the law.

Although the changeover came “like a thief,” restructuring of the police organization has been under scrutiny since the Young Turks in the police, mostly graduates from the National Police College, called for freeing the police from direct control of the prosecution. President Moon took advantage of the move as a check and balance in law enforcement, more precisely the slimming down of the prosecution.

The “check” on the prosecution went along with the establishment of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials which is to take over investigation of celebrated criminal cases from the prosecution. Anyway, the job of prosecutors is now limited to six random criteria -- lower-level bribery, economic crimes, official negligence, election fraud, weapons trade and large-scale disasters.

But the “balance” is in doubt as it looks like the power holders have built protective walls to a degree for their own brushes with the law in the future. History in Korea or elsewhere reveals easier control of police by the power, compared to the elite group called prosecutors who reached their positions through long, hard years of legal education and highly competitive state tests.

The new organizational chart of the KNPA on the internet just vaguely showed what difference the 50 million people of Korea can now expect from trusting the changed police. The main question is how the three-tier police structure will work efficiently on the national and local levels in securing public order and fighting crimes amid rapid social changes especially in the cyber world.

From the many job titles apparently made in a hurry, I could hardly tell how one differs from the other because they are so similar in sounds and meanings. For example, under the KNPA Headquarters, I see some 20 superintendents on the staff duty in charge respectively of public affairs, inspection, internal affairs, human rights protection, finance, planning and coordination; for local autonomy police, police reform appraisal, personnel education policies, information equipment, criminal analysis, human rights protection in investigation, etc.

In the command line were nearly 30 superintendents who head different sections, teams and centers, each responsible for such businesses such as crime prevention policies, order of social lives, female safety planning, traffic planning, traffic management, public security, crisis management, VIP protection, counterterrorism, intelligence management, intelligence analysis, intelligence cooperation, aliens’ affairs planning and information, Interpol cooperation, investigation planning and coordination, investigation restructuring, etc.

More than 500 police personnel should soon be added to the current manpower, including 12 police generals, 24 superintendents, and 91 assistant superintendents in order to make what the media called “new dinosaur police.” Morale will be high in the police community as there will be plenty of chances for promotion but citizens just hope that it will not be a feast for them only.

Police officers do not need to meet with prosecutors during criminal investigations except for when they request warrants for the arrest of suspects and search and seizure of evidence materials. Even after the change of systems, the rights to issue those warrants and indict criminal suspects remain exclusively with the prosecution.

Reform is a good thing as long as it means betterment -- in protecting human rights and preventing intervention by political power. But over the past four years of the Moon administration, the word reform has unfortunately earned negative nuances because of murky intent behind it especially in the area of law enforcement.

When the real reform is accomplished, there are hopes there will not be any more of incidents such as a “coordinated interference” by a bunch of Blue House officials in the 2018 mayoral election in Ulsan Metropolitan City allegedly to help an old friend of President Moon get elected. Police raided the office of the then incumbent mayor Kim Gi-hyeon for investigation of official misconduct, which later was proved unfounded. Thirteen people, including five former presidential secretaries, were indicted on charges of abuse of power in early 2020 but trials have not started for any of them yet.

Interestingly enough, the first case the National Investigation Service will handle since it hung its signboard this month is the incident involving a former lawyer named Lee Yong-ku, who is accused by a taxi driver of having assaulted him while being intoxicated. That lawyer is now the vice justice minister.

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times during the 1990s. -- Ed.