No checks in place for Yoon’s super-charged Justice Ministry

Posted on : 2022-05-03 17:56 KST Modified on : 2022-05-03 17:56 KST
With the ministry poised to take over personnel vetting, some worry that its power will expand inordinately
Han Dong-hoon, who is President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s pick for justice minister, answers questions from the press outside the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office on April 15. (Yonhap News)
Han Dong-hoon, who is President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s pick for justice minister, answers questions from the press outside the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office on April 15. (Yonhap News)

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s decision to do away with the Office of the Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs and transfer its personnel vetting function to the Ministry of Justice is leading to concerns that the ministry, poised to be led by justice minister nominee Han Dong-hoon, may come to hold disproportionate power.

On Sunday, Yoon’s presidential transition committee officially announced that the Office of the President will be reshuffled into a “two-office, five-senior secretary” system, for which the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs position will be abolished and its personnel vetting function transferred to the Ministry of Justice and the police.

While it has been customary for police to assist personnel vetting for the presidential office, the Ministry of Justice will now be joining in on the process so that the president can “make appointments based on pluralized reputation [verification],” as Yoon’s chief of staff, Chang Je-won, put it.

Many are concerned that if the Ministry of Justice begins vetting personnel for the presidential office, its power may expand inordinately. During the Moon Jae-in administration, the Blue House senior secretary for personnel management would recommend three to five candidates per open post, after which the Blue House senior secretary for civil affairs would vet those candidates. Once candidates up for a position filled out and submitted a preliminary questionnaire, the questionnaires would be cross-validated by the personnel vetting team under the secretary to the president for public office discipline.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) used to provide reputation verification material during this process, but since the Moon administration took office, the intelligence police have taken charge of the task, with the office of the senior secretary for civil affairs overseeing it, after the NIS ceased operation concerning domestic intelligence.

Yoon explained that he decided to abolish the civil affairs senior presidential secretary position because its office had “secretly investigated and doxed [members of] the public to verify reputations.” But even if the Ministry of Justice assumes the civil affairs senior secretary’s ability to vet personnel, concerns still remain. This is because in commanding the prosecution service, which holds investigative authority, the ministry may begin collecting personal information while citing its responsibility to vet personnel.

The bill that would separate the authority to conduct investigations from the authority to prosecute in order to curb the power that the prosecution service holds isn’t likely to lead to the complete stripping of the prosecution service’s investigative power. At the same time, Yoon hasn’t yet implemented his campaign promise to strip the justice minister of the power to direct investigations. As this is the case, those within political circles say the Ministry of Justice may accumulate information gathered from investigations in the early days of the Yoon administration.

Moreover, because Yoon appointed his closest associate within the prosecution service — Han Dong-hoon — as his justice minister despite objections from his close aides, it has become much more likely that the Justice Ministry will directly govern judicial affairs and the prosecution. This is why concerns are surfacing that the ministry will reenact the “secret investigations” and “doxing” the civil affairs senior presidential secretary purportedly committed according to Yoon.

An individual who used to work under the Blue House senior secretary for civil affairs said, “During the personnel vetting process, the personal data of high-ranking public officials and other major government agencies would be gathered at the Ministry of Justice. The ministry would hold the personal information of public officials in one hand while holding the prosecution service’s investigative authority on the other, but there wouldn’t be a way to hold [the ministry] in check.”

They continued, “There’s a high chance that the Ministry of Justice will establish a more powerful battle formation than that of the NIS in the past and become the core tower of the prosecution republic.”

Some also point out that reputation verifications may still be carried out subjectively, and that it’s questionable whether the Justice Ministry will be able to handle the demand for personnel vetting that would come up at any and all times once the Yoon administration kicks off.

A high-ranking prosecutor who has experience working under the Blue House secretary for public office discipline said, “There’s much room for subjectivity to sway the Ministry of Justice’s personnel vetting process. The police also were confused as they did what the NIS used to do, so I don’t know how the Justice Ministry would do the job with no prior experience.”

A high-ranking prosecutor who previously worked for the Justice Ministry also said, “The manpower within the Ministry of Justice isn’t sufficient, so it would be challenging for the ministry to handle personnel vetting. In the end, vetting may center on subjective reputation judgments, and the Justice Ministry will sway the appointment process, which may make the ministry enormously powerful.”

By Seo Young-ji, staff reporter

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