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[Kim Myong-sik] Popular former prosecution chief stirs Korean politics

March 11, 2021 - 05:31 By Kim Myong-sik
Watching the worsening turmoil in Myanmar, where the death toll from the brutal police control rises day by day, South Koreans see flashbacks of their own streets four decades ago. Pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by the hundreds in the rebellious city of Gwangju and in the capital, Seoul, until the military finally withdrew from politics in the 1980s.

Democratic governance has developed, with rightist and leftist groups exchanging power almost regularly. No blood was spilled on the pavement during the period, although two presidents were impeached by the National Assembly. The first one was saved by the court but later died by suicide, while the second now faces a long imprisonment.

We mourn the death of a young taekwondo champion in Mandalay and the falling of scores of youths in Yangon and other places, assuring ourselves that no such tragedies will happen here again, no matter how our politics may fluctuate in the days ahead. But we are apt to question now how far we have moved away from the arbitrary execution of power and how justly and fairly power is shared and passed between political groups.

A negative answer was there as we witnessed last week the resignation of the prosecutor general four months before the expiration of his two-year tenure under pressure from the ruling force, which feared prosecutors’ probes into power abuse cases approaching the inner circle of the president. Yoon Seok-youl had confronted the justice minister, who essentially had tried to incapacitate him with administrative orders and new legislation, for a full year.

Yoon is now regarded as a bombshell who could shake the political theater ahead of the mayoral elections in the two largest cities, Seoul and Busan, and eventually the presidential poll in the spring of 2022. He was the favorite hunting dog for President Moon Jae-in while he investigated past right-wing Presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak and their associates since the change of power in 2017. But he quickly lost Moon’s trust as he found fresh targets.

The failures of the Moon government did not consist of mega-corruption at the top level or major blunders in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. But more than enough criticism has piled up over the past four years concerning Moon’s priorities in income distribution, his misguided energy policy, his alienation of traditional foreign allies, his excessive compliance with North Korean demands, and other matters.

The worst thing about the present leftist government is the general demeanor of its key players -- the hypocrisy shown by former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, the audacity exhibited by former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and the absence of tolerance on the part of Moon’s enforcers in condemning past political leaders. What Yoon Seok-youl resisted as prosecutor general was a concerted effort by those currently in power to transform the system of law enforcement itself -- to make it easier for them to evade its snares.

Yoon was not alone in detecting the ulterior motives of the Moon government as it endeavored to cut the power of prosecutors, first by transferring most of their investigative functions to the police and then by establishing a separate agency exclusively in charge of crimes committed by high-ranking public officials. The media, academics and legal experts saw that it would be more convenient for those in power to use police -- rather than prosecutors, who have stronger legal training -- to execute their political plans.

That President Moon appointed four justice ministers in four years shows just how anxiously the leftist government wanted to change the system and the practice of law enforcement. In a final step to complete the transformation, ruling party lawmakers have proposed a bill to deprive the prosecution of the right to investigate the last six categories of felonies that remain under their jurisdiction after the rest were turned over to the police.

Yoon opposed the total transfer of prosecutors’ investigative functions to the police, which would turn the prosecution into a skeleton agency responsible only for the indictment of criminal suspects. When Yoon finally resigned last Thursday, something very weird happened. The ruling party decided to delay the introduction of its bill to end the direct investigation of any criminal cases by prosecutors.

With the maverick prosecutor general gone, the power holders do not mind allowing prosecutors to continue investigating certain kinds of felonies. The six categories are corruption by officials, major economic offenses, misdeeds of public servants, election fraud, defense industry crimes and large-scale manmade disasters. What a strange democracy this is, deciding to change or not change the law solely to keep the powerful safe from criminal probes directed by a defiant chief of the prosecution.

All these schemes against Yoon only made him look holier to the general public, raising him to the top spot among potential presidential contenders in opinion surveys.

“I will do what I can to help reestablish the constitutional spirit and the rule of law from outside the office,” Yoon said upon leaving office after 27 years of service with the prosecution. Most people understood this remark as a declaration that he would enter politics.

Parties campaigning for the Seoul and Busan elections are on alert about Yoon. Any public speech or social media posting in which he criticizes President Moon and his administration would greatly boost the opposition candidate. And then, after the April 7 by-elections in the two most populous cities, the People Power Party may have a promising entry to the presidential race, depending on whether Yoon can secure sufficient support from within the party.

The clock has started ticking toward the March 2022 election. The coronavirus year of 2020 went by with spectacular actions by a justice minister desperate to bind the power of the prosecutor general through waves of reshuffles of prosecutors and unsuccessful punitive measures against their chief. And the rest of this year will be a time for both camps of Korean politics to seek the right answer to the question of what to do with an outsider named Yoon Seok-youl.

It used to be that the fate of such a recruit from the outside was more or less ephemeral, as the cases of former Prime Minister Goh Kun and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon showed in 2007 and 2017, respectively. But there is a remarkable difference between Yoon and the other two. It was the Moon administration itself that raised Yoon to this stature and gave him firsthand knowledge of how incompetent and democratically flawed the present regime is.


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