A blatant attempt to meddle in politics lays bare Korea’s status as a ‘prosecutor state’

Posted on : 2024-02-25 09:24 KST Modified on : 2024-02-25 09:24 KST
A case that involved a high-level prosecutor drafting criminal complaints targeting Democratic Party figures in cooperation with a conservative lawmaker has shined a light on the omerta-like bond among powerful prosecutors, who are increasingly wading into Korea’s political scene
Son Jun-sung leaves the Seoul Central District Court on Jan. 31 after being sentenced to a year in prison for manufacturing criminal complaints aimed at politicians. (Yonhap)
Son Jun-sung leaves the Seoul Central District Court on Jan. 31 after being sentenced to a year in prison for manufacturing criminal complaints aimed at politicians. (Yonhap)

“Police state” is an academic term used to describe absolute monarchies of 17th- and 18th-century Europe, when states exercised complete control and did not legally afford citizens freedoms and rights.
Currently, the term is used more broadly to describe a state that abuses its police powers to monitor or control the lives of its citizens.
“Prosecutor state” is a term that only exists in South Korea. It refers to a situation in which prosecutors have completely seized control over the power of the state.
President Yoon Suk-yeol is a former prosecutor, as is the interim leader of the ruling People Power Party, Han Dong-hoon. Kim Hong-il, the chairman of the Korean Communications Commission, and Lee Bok-hyun, the governor of the Financial Supervisory Service, are also former prosecutors.
Positions usually filled by politicians, experts in certain fields, and bureaucrats whose niche is economics, are now being held by former prosecutors.
Why doesn’t the phrase “prosecutor state” exist in other countries? The answer is simple: because seeing so many prosecutors hold so many positions of power is virtually unique to South Korea.
Why aren’t other countries leaving prosecutors to run the country? Prosecutors are special service government officials who investigate, prosecute, and enforce criminal sentences. They belong to the category of officials who explore the past. By their very nature, they are inept at predicting the future, deciding on forward-oriented goals for the country, and managing the country’s affairs.
Yoon’s job performance is hitting rock bottom not only because of his personal incompetence, but because his life-long career as a prosecutor has doomed him to bungle all matters related to governing the country.
His incompetence is not his alone to shoulder; it is the responsibility of all of us who elected him as president. Who knows? We may be in the middle of a political experiment unprecedented in all ages and countries.
The “prosecutor state:” Standing for injustice and incompetence
Will we see the end of the prosecutor state when the Yoon administration finishes its five-year term? It’s hard to tell. If Han Dong-hoon wins the 2027 presidential election, we could see the prosecutor state be extended to 10 years.
You may think the probability of that happening is very low. But don’t forget: We have seen Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who gained power through military coups, win successive presidential elections.
What will happen to South Korea if the prosecutor state lasts a decade? It will degenerate into a backward country.
A prosecutor state is bound to be plagued by two fatal flaws, the first being the aforementioned incompetence of prosecutors. The second is its monopolization of power. An all-powerful prosecutor will paralyze the state system.
The recent political meddling scandal, in which a first court ruled that the prosecution service violated their political neutrality, is a prime example of what happens when prosecutors monopolize power.
The investigation and prosecution of the case were conducted by the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO). If it weren’t for the CIO, the prosecution would have swept the case under the carpet.
The case was simple. On April 15, 2020, right before that year’s general election, Son Jun-sung, then chief of investigative information policy at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, wrote a criminal complaint and gave it to PPP lawmaker Kim Woong, who was running for a seat in the National Assembly at the time, therefore encouraging members of the PPP (then known as the United Future Party) to file criminal complaints against figures in and associated with the Democratic Party.
The criminal complaint listed then-Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol and his wife as victims of defamation along with Han Dong-hoon, who was then the deputy chief prosecutor at the Busan High Prosecutors’ Office, as well as the director of the anti-corruption and violent crimes division at the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office.
The case was exposed in September 2021 by Newsverse, an online investigative journalism outlet. The CIO, which launched the investigation, twice sought an arrest warrant for Son, both of which were dismissed. Yoon, Han and two prosecutors from the investigative information policy department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office were cleared of suspicions, as no charges were found against them. This was due to the fact that the CIO was unwilling to investigate the case, and also lacked the ability to do so.
The prosecution service was at the core of the problem. While the CIO believed that Kim was an accomplice, since he was not a prosecutor at the time, his case was transferred to prosecutors, who then let him off without charges. 
Son was cleared by the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office even though his trial was ongoing. In September 2023, he was even promoted to chief prosecutor. If the CIO did not exist and the prosecution service had overseen Son’s case, he would also have been cleared of suspicions, as South Korean prosecutors are known for looking after their own above all else.
Son is the son-in-law of former United Future Party lawmaker Kim Gwang-lim. If it weren’t for the CIO, Son could have climbed up the ladders of success to become prosecutor general, or even enter politics under his father-in-law’s name.

National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug (center) stands with Democratic Party floor leader Park Hong-keun (left) and People Power Party floor leader Kweon Seong-dong (right) after reaching a compromise on prosecution reform legislation on April 22, 2022. (pool photo)
National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug (center) stands with Democratic Party floor leader Park Hong-keun (left) and People Power Party floor leader Kweon Seong-dong (right) after reaching a compromise on prosecution reform legislation on April 22, 2022. (pool photo)

Why conservatives oppose the CIO
The CIO was created in December 2019, during the Moon Jae-in administration, when the National Assembly passed the Act on the Establishment and Operation of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials.
The so-called “4+1” semi-mixed-member proportional representation system that included the Democratic Party and four other minor parties designated it and other bills as a fast-track agenda, and only barely managed to pass it. 
Korean civil society has long yearned for an agency like the CIO. In 1996, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy first petitioned for an anti-corruption law, which included the establishment of a corruption investigation office for high-ranking officials.
Former President Roh Moo-hyun pledged to establish the office during his 2002 presidential campaign. In November 2004, a bill drafted by the administration on the establishment of a corruption investigation office was taken to the National Assembly. 
After that, numerous lawmakers from the Democratic Party and other progressive parties submitted the same bill repeatedly to the National Assembly. The main reasoning behind the establishment of such an office was prosecution reform. 
There was a sense of urgency that democracy could not take root if prosecutors, who monopolized the power to investigate and prosecute, were tied to vested interests.

As former President Moon Jae-in wrote in his book “South Korea Asks,” published right before the 2017 presidential election: “The fastest reform possible is the separation of the investigative and prosecutorial powers currently held by prosecutors. The investigative powers should be given to the police while the power to prosecute should be retained by prosecutors.”
“Before we reach that final goal, we need a temporary office to investigate high-ranking public officials,” he went on. 
“An independent corruption investigation office for high-ranking officials, which will be able to investigate not only high-ranking officials but also the president and his or her aides, should be established,” Moon wrote. 
The CIO was the fruition of many wishes harbored by civil society, the Democratic Party, and former presidents Roh and Moon. 
But isn’t it odd? Discussions over the establishment of the office started in 1996, so why did it take so long for the office to be created?
When former Roh Moo-hyun submitted the bill to the National Assembly in November 2004, the Uri Party had the absolute majority. Still, the bill failed to pass.
Why? Because the Hannara Party was opposed to it.

The string of conservative parties that preceded our current People Power Party — the Hannara Party, the Saenuri Party, the Liberty Korea Party, and the United Future Party — all vehemently opposed the establishment of the CIO. 

During the general election in 2004, the Hannara Party pledged to establish an oversight entity for investigating corruption among high-level government officials. But they pulled a complete 180 before the election even concluded, announcing a resolution calling for the nullification of plans for establishing an office for investigating corruption among high-level officials. The Hannara Party cited concerns about the office being used as a political tool to suppress the opposition. 

But what is the real reason for the so-called conservatives’ opposition to the CIO? The conservatives in power and the cartel of prosecutors are essentially on the same team. Not sure what I mean? The majority of former high-level prosecutors who are now in politics stand on the conservatives’ side of the aisle. We use the word “conservative,” but the only values they have are money and power. 

In order for high-ranking prosecutors to transition to a cushy and profitable political career after retirement, the cartel of prosecutors needs to retain its jurisdictional monopoly over investigations and indictments. If a CIO were to be established, it would cut into the prosecutors’ jurisdictional monopoly. That is the real reason behind the conservatives’ and the prosecutor cartel’s vicious opposition to the CIO.   
This is also why Liberty Party Korea, led by Hwang Kyo-ahn and Na Kyung-won, strongly opposed the 2019 bill passed by the National Assembly for establishing an anti-corruption agency. Hwang led a protest against the bill in Gwanghwamun Square, where he denounced the CIO as an agency akin to the Gestapo. 

“Under no circumstances is this acceptable,” Hwang declared at the time. Why would he say such things? Because the CIO would obstruct the interests of the conservatives in power and the prosecutors’ cartel.   

Yoon, Han and the truth behind the truth behind the case of complaints targeting Democrats

Some of you may remember that the respective floor leaders of the two main parties at the time — Kweon Seong-dong of the People Power Party, and Park Hong-keun of the Democratic Party — reached a compromise under National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug on a proposal for reforming the prosecution service back in April 2022. This was when Yoon Suk-yeol was a presidential candidate. 

The crux of the proposal was that a portion of the prosecutors’ right to conduct their own investigations and indictment would be transferred to a national crime agency, under the condition that the prosecutors retain their authority until the agency’s official launch.  

Yoon had already been informed of the proposal before the political compromise was reached, meaning he’d already cleared it. People Power Party members also voted to approve the proposal during a general meeting. Yet Yoon ran into strong criticism from conservative media outlets and his prosecutor colleagues — both active and retired. 

Behind closed doors, Yoon changed his stance on the issue. He mobilized the People Power Party, under then-party leader Lee Jun-seok and justice minister candidate Han Dong-hoon, to reverse its decision to support the compromise. A presidential candidate and the floor leader of the ruling party had bowed their heads to vested conservative interests and the prosecutors’ cartel.  

The same factors are at work behind nominations for the CIO chief. Kim Tae-kyu, the vice chairperson of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, has repeatedly called for the dissolution of the CIO, which he’s called a “monstrous institution.” Yet the ruling party is insistent on appointing Kim to lead the CIO. Interesting. Obviously, it’s a ploy to effectively neutralize the CIO’s power. And that is why, my friends, the proper establishment and implementation of the CIO is absolutely vital. 

It’s time to wrap things up. The truth behind the allegations that Yoon and Han targeted certain political figures for witch hunt investigations has yet to be revealed. The investigative information policy officer under the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office follows the orders of the prosecutor general. The position is often called the “eyes and ears of the prosecutor general.” It is therefore reasonable to assume that Yoon was behind the aforementioned witch hunts. It is also essential to see if Han Dong-hoon got involved as a senior prosecutor. 

After the initial verdict, activist groups and the Democratic Party reported Yoon and Han to the CIO. Now we’ve come full circle. You can’t hide the truth forever. What do you, dear readers, think? 

By Seong Han-yong, senior politics writer

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

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