Yoon taps close associate to head Justice Ministry, asserting grip on prosecution service

Posted on : 2022-04-14 17:20 KST Modified on : 2022-04-14 17:20 KST
Some also say Han’s appointment is a hard-line response to the Democratic Party’s own hard-line push to strip the prosecution of its investigative powers
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol introduces his pick for justice minister, Han Dong-hoon, during an announcement of eight Cabinet nominations at the office of the presidential transition commission in Seoul’s Tongui neighborhood on April 13. (pool photo)
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol introduces his pick for justice minister, Han Dong-hoon, during an announcement of eight Cabinet nominations at the office of the presidential transition commission in Seoul’s Tongui neighborhood on April 13. (pool photo)

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol named senior prosecutor Han Dong-hoon as his nominee for minister of justice on Wednesday. During his announcement, Yoon stressed Han’s qualification as the “best person to overhaul the judicial system,” describing his closest aide within the prosecution service as a “US attorney” who “speaks fluent English” and meets the “global standard.” Yet, Yoon made no reference to the descriptors that have frequently followed Han, such as his reputation as Yoon’s “closest associate” and “the best prosecutor of the prosecutorial division specializing in special crimes.”

Yoon’s announcement signifies a complete reversal of what he said in regard to his potential justice minister pick before the election. At the time, he alluded to the necessity of investigating the Moon Jae-in administration and directly suggested the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office — who represents the pinnacle of special investigations by prosecutors — as his justice minister nominee.

No one within the prosecution service believes Yoon chose his nominee because of an ability to “overhaul the judicial system to meet international standards.” The predominant view is that Yoon is making the gesture of removing Han from conducting investigations in order to fend off concerns of political retaliation, while making clear that he will rule over the prosecution service directly via his presidential authority over prosecutorial personnel and via his closest aide as justice minister.

This also connects with Yoon’s pick to lead the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, which oversees the police — a legal professional who went to Chungam High School and Seoul National University’s School of Law, just like Yoon. A former prosecutor general who knows the power of inspection agencies as well as their inner workings, Yoon may be signaling that he will personally oversee the prosecution service and the police rather than entrust them to politicians. This is why even those within Yoon’s transition team couldn’t predict who Yoon would nominate as his justice and interior ministers.

When asked about concerns regarding investigative fairness brought up due to Han’s personal relationship with Yoon, Han said on Wednesday, “Our relationship is not one of blind obedience through which we help each other out. I have never blindly obeyed him, nor will I ever do so.”

That a nominee for minister even uttered the words “blind obedience” while describing his relationship with the incoming president paradoxically shows how close the two are. Han is reportedly close enough to Yoon to call the latter “brother Suk-yeol” and share his views with the latter without reservation. Han was found to have been in contact with Yoon’s wife Kim Keon-hee multiple times as well.

A high-ranking prosecutor commented, “A prosecutor who has done good work on major cases as part of the prosecutorial division specializing in special crimes, Han could have been appointed to key positions within the prosecution service, but he was appointed to be the justice minister, who doesn’t have investigative powers, which seems to indicate that the move was intended to ward off concerns of political retaliation on the surface.”

Another high-ranking official commented, “Yoon will completely dominate the prosecution service by building a system of direct control over the prosecutor general by collaborating with his closest aide as [justice] minister.”

Han Dong-hoon, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s pick for justice minister, speaks to reporters during an announcement of Cabinet nominations at the office of the presidential transition commission in Seoul’s Tongui neighborhood on April 13. (pool photo)
Han Dong-hoon, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s pick for justice minister, speaks to reporters during an announcement of Cabinet nominations at the office of the presidential transition commission in Seoul’s Tongui neighborhood on April 13. (pool photo)

Some say Yoon’s campaign pledge to strip the justice minister of their authority to direct investigations has become meaningless now that Yoon has named Han as his pick to fill the role. On Wednesday, Han mentioned Choo Mi-ae and Park Beom-gye, the former and current justice ministers who previously invoked their authority to lead investigations against the prosecution service under Yoon and Han, respectively, by name, saying, “Even if I take office as minister, I will not invoke my authority to direct investigations.”

Justice ministers under conservative administrations have never invoked their authority to lead investigations, as the Blue House, the Ministry of Justice, and the prosecution service tend to work hand in hand under a conservative government. Naturally, if prosecutors of the “Yoon Suk-yeol line” return to their posts through the prosecution service’s general reshuffling scheduled for July, the incoming administration’s justice minister wouldn’t have any need to invoke their authority to direct investigations.

Some also say Han’s appointment is a hard-line response to the Democratic Party’s own hard-line push to strip the prosecution of its investigative powers. Regarding the Democratic Party’s rush to pass such prosecutorial reforms, Han said, “Attempts to pass such a bill must be prevented.”

By Kim Kyung-wook, staff reporter; Son Hyun-soo, staff reporter; Seo Young-ji, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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