Yoon’s revival of civil affairs senior secretary criticized as shield against judicial scrutiny

Posted on : 2024-05-08 17:01 KST Modified on : 2024-05-08 17:25 KST
The president had previously abolished the position, saying it was abused to control political adversaries and opponents under the guise of lawfulness
President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) answers questions from reporters after introducing his new senior secretary for civil affairs, former Ministry of Justice Vice Minister Kim Ju-hyeon at the presidential office in Seoul on May 7, 2024. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) answers questions from reporters after introducing his new senior secretary for civil affairs, former Ministry of Justice Vice Minister Kim Ju-hyeon at the presidential office in Seoul on May 7, 2024. (Yonhap)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol explained his choice to bring back the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs office on Tuesday as being based on “listening to public sentiments.”

But opposition parties and civil society came out the same day denouncing the revival of the office — in a reversal of Yoon’s previous pledge to abolish it — as an “attempt to increase control over inspection organizations and defend against judicial risks.”

Announcing former Vice Minister of Justice Kim Joo-hyun’s appointment as senior secretary personally at the Yongsan presidential office that day, Yoon explained the reasons behind it by commenting that “the opposition party delegation commented on the function in terms of listening to public opposition during my last meeting with [Democratic Party leader] Lee Jae-myung.”

He also said that the late former President Kim Dae-jung “initially had only a legal affairs secretary’s office out of concerns about adverse effects but ended up reinstating the senior civil affairs secretary’s office two years after taking office.”

In his explanation, he stressed that the office’s establishment was meant as a measure to listen to public opinion more closely and reflect comments made by the opposition parties and media in the past, adding that he was “reinstating” an organization that past administrations had uniformly operated.

But his explanation was not perceived as very convincing by many.

In a statement the same day, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy said, “The office of the senior secretary for civil society, which is really supposed to perform the role of listening to public opinion, is currently vacant.”

“They have revived the senior secretary of civil affairs even when they were fully capable of hearing public opinions by strengthening the role of the senior secretary for civil society [as a figure communicating with the National Assembly and civil society],” the group suggested.

Democratic Party spokesperson Choi Min-seok said, “The idea of listening to public opinion through the senior secretary for civil affairs does not make any sense.”

“They seem to want to use inspection agencies even to detect trends in public opinion,” he added.

The reasons for the objections from opposition parties and civil society have to do with the role the senior secretary for civil affairs has performed in the past.

Officially, the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs performs duties related to vetting high-ranking officials, gathering public opinion on state affairs, examining trends in senior official service, managing issues related to relatives of the president, and communicating with inspection agencies.

In general, however, the focus has tended to be less on hearing out public opinions than on directing agencies tasked with carrying out investigations, inspections and audits.

It was for this reason that as president-elect, Yoon commented on March 14, 2022, about the office of the senior civil affairs society having “controlled inspection agencies in the past and routinely used them to control political adversaries and opponents under a guise of lawfulness,” adding that it had used “examination of public opinion” as a pretext to acquire personal information about members of the public and conduct background checks.

Yoon made a pledge to abolish the position, which he subsequently carried out. Political world observers suggested he had made the decision because as a former prosecutor general, he was more aware than anyone of the abuses by senior civil affairs secretaries in the past.

His move on Tuesday to revive the position and place a newly created a secretary position underneath it, along with a civil service discipline secretary and legal affairs secretary, sparked criticisms for backpedaling on his previous pledge — along with controversy over the same issues with “controlling inspection agencies” that he himself had commented on.

Kim Joo-hyun, the figure appointed as senior presidential secretary, was a member of the 18th class at the Judicial Research and Training Institute, which makes him a senior to current Prosecutor General Lee One-seok (27th class) by nine terms.

The strong adherence to hierarchy in the prosecution makes it easier for it to be controlled by the presidential office through the senior secretary for civil affairs, raising concerns even among prosecutors.
“The senior secretary for civil affairs will be the actual power behind inspection agencies and will be the first to receive investigation reports,” remarked a regional chief prosecutor. 

Another chief prosecutor commented that the relationship between the senior secretary for civil affairs and the prosecution service will be “taken back in time.” 

“The senior secretary will end up being very influential in the prosecutions’ personnel,” they said. “I doubt that younger prosecutors will allow such an atmosphere to become prevalent.”
The opposition strongly suspects that Yoon's intention in reviving the position of senior secretary for civil affairs is to “save his family from being judged by the law by taking control of the prosecution,” to quote the Democrats’ spokesperson. Riding the wave of the opposition’s sweeping victory in the April 10 general election, the National Assembly passed a special act on investigating the truth behind the death of a Marine corporal who died during a missing persons search during flooding, established a task force to investigate first lady Kim Keon-hee’s acceptance of a luxury handbag, and signaled their intent to launch a special counsel investigation into Kim in the 22nd National Assembly, which would investigate allegations of stock price manipulation.
As such, the president’s actions are seen as an attempt to take control of the inspection and audit agencies and prepare for possible legal judgments by placing a former senior prosecutor in the position of senior secretary for civil affairs.
“No other individual is fit to defend against the president’s family and close aides against allegations of corruption,” said Kim Min-jeong, spokesperson for the Justice Party. “Yoon is blatantly placing allies in high offices to rein in inspection agencies as he tries to wriggle himself out of the crises he faces as a lame-duck, dead-duck, president.”
The president’s response to such criticism was to say that he would bear responsibility for any problems involving himself personally.  

“Any judgments to be made are my responsibility, not the senior secretary of civil affairs’. I will try to explain and resolve any problems related to myself instead of making it the job of the senior secretary,” he said. 
Jung Hee-yong, a spokesperson for the People Power Party, also welcomed the revival of the position, saying that the “entire focus of the new position lies in communication,” and that the move “demonstrates a strong will to listen to the public and reflect them in state management.”
“It is urgent that an office that looks into the affairs of the first lady is established along with the revival of the senior secretary for civil affairs,” wrote lawmaker Yoon Sang-hyun, who belongs to the ruling party’s non-Yoon-aligned faction, on Facebook.
It is also of interest whether the senior secretary for civil affairs will take back the functions of vetting public officials, which were handed over to the Ministry of Justice when the position was abolished, or oversight over relatives of the president, which has been virtually neglected in the absence of the independent inspector general and the organization that looked after the affairs of presidential spouses. 

A senior presidential office official only said, “It is up for future discussion.”

By Lee Seung-jun, staff reporter; Son Hyun-soo, staff reporter; Lim Jae-woo, staff reporter; Jeong Hye-min, staff reporter

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories