Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min said on Monday that he will create a “police bureau” within the ministry as early as possible.
If the bureau is established, it would mark the first time in 31 years for the Interior Ministry to exercise direct control over police since the law enforcement agency was spun off as an outside organization of the ministry in 1991 as part of efforts to ensure its independence and neutrality.
Lee also said in a press conference that he will establish rules on the ministry’s commands to the police commissioner general and make transparent personnel affairs procedures as soon as possible.
Earlier, a police reform advisory committee under the ministry had unveiled a set of recommendations, including creating the bureau. In the press conference, Lee expressed his intention to control police on the basis of the recommendations.
Past governments controlled police through the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs. Prosecutors commanded police investigations. However, as President Yoon Suk-yeol abolished the post, the ministry took up the job of directing the police.
Police authority was strengthened by the previous administration. People are concerned that the police have become too powerful. Minister Lee said that if the ministry failed to do something about police strength, it would be a dereliction of duty. The ministry seeks to finalize police reform plans and embark on necessary law revisions by July 15.
National Police Agency Commissioner General Kim Chang-yong offered to resign on Monday, and issued a statement an hour after Lee’s news conference. In the statement, he said that the advisory panel’s recommendations will shake the existing police systems founded on political neutrality and democratic control. Apparently, he opposed the recommendations.
Kim expressed his intention to resign to reporters, but he is said to have taken a leave of absence without tendering his resignation. The sincerity of his intention to step down is questionable.
Appointed as the nation’s police chief in July 2020 by the administration of former President Moon Jae-in, Kim does not seem to be qualified to argue for the police’s political neutrality. Many believe that, under his watch, the police have not acted with impartiality in several investigations. Police dawdled over allegations involving the former presidential candidate of the then-ruling Democratic Party of Korea. Police gained power while acting friendly to the Moon regime, which tried to weaken the prosecution.
Regarding controversies over the envisioned police bureau, people seem to agree on two things. One is a common perception that the police need to be controlled democratically. There are growing fears that the police will become more powerful thanks to law revisions that will strip the prosecution of all its investigative power and transfer it to the police. The other is a consensus that investigations should be unaffected by the role of political power.
Minister Lee said that it was abnormal for Cheong Wa Dae to command police directly without going through the Interior Ministry. His view is not wrong. Some front-line police officers are protesting the ministry’s reform plan. A group of them held a news conference to demand that the ministry immediately withdraw the police bureau plan. People cannot help but ask if the police are attempting to gain increasingly unchecked power.
Considering police officers’ concerns, the Interior Ministry should not take the task of securing the political neutrality of police investigations and controlling its organization lightly. Police reforms are the demands of the times. The ministry should gather opinions from both experts and front-line police officers.
Police must not refuse to address concerns that they may become an organization with unchecked power; nor should they aggravate the situation with violent collective actions.