The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office requested the Justice Ministry last week to penalize two incumbent prosecutors over their inappropriate behavior related to the April 10 general election.
Under the Public Official Election Act, state public officials who wish to stand for election are required to resign 90 days before the vote. A prosecutors’ code of ethics stipulates that a prosecutor shall not be involved in political campaigns, and remain politically neutral in performing his or her duties.
Over the Chuseok holidays in late September last year, Kim Sang-min, then a senior prosecutor at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, sent text messages suggesting he would run for the election to residents of Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. He said he belonged to Changwon, his hometown, and that he would “give the community big hopes and goals.”
His action became an issue during the parliamentary audit in October. In an internal inquiry over his apparent breach of ethics as a prosecutor, he said the texts were merely a holiday greeting and had no political meaning.
But on Dec. 28, the day the SPO’s inspection committee decided to issue a warning, Kim tendered his resignation and said in a media interview that he plans to run for a parliamentary seat. The next day, he wrote on Facebook that he was sure about his decision, and that he was holding a book launch party on Jan. 6. He later deleted the post.
Kim was immediately transferred to the Daejeon High Prosecutors’ Office, and after further inquiry, the SPO has called for heavy disciplinary action against him, which means suspension at the least.
Also facing a heavy sanction is Park Dae-beom, former head of the Masan branch of the Changwon District Prosecutors Office, who met with incumbent lawmakers to seek political advice. Park stated during an inquiry that he would not run in the election.
Under current rules, there is no way to prevent cases like Kim. Even if the ministry decides to dismiss him, it won’t make much difference as he has already offered to resign.
The State Public Officials Act stipulates that the retirement of a public official cannot be allowed if he or she is prosecuted or a request has been made to the personnel committee to pass a resolution on disciplinary action against him or her such as removal, dismissal, demotion or suspension from office.
But people like Kim can still throw their hats into the ring thanks to the precedent of Rep. Hwang Un-ha. Hwang ran for the 2020 general election while he was still a senior police official and undergoing trial over his alleged interference in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election. His resignation had not been accepted as he was standing trial for a criminal case. But he was elected, and in a lawsuit filed by his election rival, the Supreme Court ruled that Hwang was deemed to have retired when he tendered his resignation.
A revised bill to restrict judges and prosecutors from running for public office for a year after resignation or retirement has been pending at the National Assembly for over three years.
Prosecutors and judges quitting just before elections to enter politics cannot be free from suspicions that they may have been politically biased in investigations or trials to get party nominations as candidates. An increasing number of prosecutors and judges heading straight to politics is bound to undermine the public’s trust in the judiciary.
With a record number of ex-prosecutors expected to run in the April election, it is high time legislative discussions began on restricting prosecutors and judges from jumping straight into politics.