[Column] Oh how far Korea’s prosecution service has fallen

Posted on : 2024-02-07 17:40 KST Modified on : 2024-02-07 17:40 KST
The deeds described in the recent verdict on a plot within the prosecution service were so reckless it’s hard to believe they were committed by public prosecutors
Prosecutor General Lee One-seok (third from left) greets participants in a meeting on Feb. 5 of departmental chief prosecutors across the nation tasked with monitoring the upcoming election in April. (Yonhap)
Prosecutor General Lee One-seok (third from left) greets participants in a meeting on Feb. 5 of departmental chief prosecutors across the nation tasked with monitoring the upcoming election in April. (Yonhap)

By Lee Chun-jae, editorial writer

After reading the verdict of the first trial in a case concerning a conspiracy plot by prosecutors to target politicians with trumped-up criminal complaints, I couldn’t help but let out a long sigh. How did the prosecutors fall this low? 

President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has claimed he “loves the office of prosecutors with a passion,” was the prosecutor general when his subordinates committed crimes that shook the very foundation of the prosecution service to protect the honor of himself and his wife. The court declared that the prosecutors in question (Son Jun-sung, Im Hong-seok, and Seong Sang-ok) violated their oath of political neutrality and encouraged opposition party politicians to file criminal reports against figures in the then-ruling Democratic camp in an effort to influence the election. 

Yoon, who has claimed he “is not loyal to individuals,” looks as if he demanded loyalty from his prosecutor underlings. The deeds described in the verdict were so reckless it’s hard to believe they were committed by public prosecutors. 

People Power Party lawmaker Kim Woong (then a National Assembly candidate for the United Future Party) handed two separate formal criminal accusations to Cho Seong-eun (then the deputy chief of the United Future Party’s election committee) in April 2020. The court concluded in its verdict that there is a high probability that the person who drafted the criminal complaints was someone who had written an indictment before, or at the very least had related professional experience. This conclusion was in response to suspicions that Im Hong-seok, a high-ranking prosecutor at the time, was the person who drafted the complaints. 

If that’s the case, then this is no small matter. It would mean the accusations were drafted specifically to protect Yoon, the first lady, and former Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, and punish the journalists and members of the then-ruling Democratic Party camp who went after them. They are based on the presumption that allegations tying the first lady to stock manipulation and the assertion that prosecutors colluded with a certain media outlet to attack certain politicians were entirely false. 

Yet these two criminal complaints were drafted before the prosecutors began their official investigations into the two aforementioned cases. The person who drafted them couldn’t have known the innocence or guilt of the accused persons without investigating them first. It is therefore highly likely that Son Jun-sung, a high-level prosecutor in a position commonly referred to as the “eyes and ears” of the prosecutor general, confirmed the facts beforehand with Yoon and Han. In other words, it’s highly likely that Yoon and Han were aware of the accusations being drafted beforehand. 

Regarding the claim that Son could have neglected to report to Yoon, that’s unlikely. If it turns out that the charges levied against Yoon’s wife were undeniably true, Son would have been hit by professional blowback like a ton of bricks. Moreover, prosecutors are known for sticking together and moving as a single unit, regardless of department. The chances of Son acting on his own are close to zero. 

The facts also support this. Before the criminal complaints were relayed, the KakaoTalk group chat of Son, Han, and Kwon Sun-jeong (then the prosecutors’ office spokesperson) suddenly exploded with activity. Three days before the first bill was relayed, on March 31, the group chat had a traffic of 93 chats. On April 1, it was 66. On April 2, it was 138. 

Moreover, Yoon and Han talked on the phone 12 times on April 1 and 17 times on April 2. This is probably why Han refused to the very end to share his mobile device’s password during investigations into collusion between prosecutors and the media. 

At the time, prosecutors went after the Moon Jae-in administration for allegedly meddling in the election for Ulsan mayor. They were investigating Lim Jong-seok, the then chief of staff to Moon, and Cho Kuk, the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, for allegations that they interfered to benefit the election on behalf of incumbent Song Cheol-ho, known as a “friend” to Moon, by ordering an investigation into the opposition candidate. 

The recent verdict shows that prosecutors, while claiming to go after people in power, were actually conspiring to interfere in a general election. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. 

When the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials indicted Son in May 2022, prosecutors were certainly aware of these facts. Prosecutor General Lee One-seok, however, pronounced Son innocent in April 2023 when an internal investigation ended without charges. When Lee was appointed as prosecutor general, he declared that “it’s a prosecutor’s duty to devote oneself fully to what needs to be done, to be wary of what shouldn’t be done, and to always work in a spirit of service.” He acted like someone who would not tolerate corruption within the prosecution service, and even requested that people call him “general watchdog” instead of “prosecutor general.” Yet Lee stepped in to extricate Son, someone who has been accused of major crimes. As if that weren’t enough, he even gave Son a promotion. Do as I say, not as I do.   

Lee recently called prosecutors to “strictly punish any infarctions or crimes that interfere with regional elections, so that the will of the people is correctly reflected without any perversions.” One can’t help but wonder if prosecutors will only go after the political opposition in this year’s general election as well.  

Maybe you could convince me to believe that the prosecutor general is a man of his word if he were to immediately reopen the investigation into Son’s co-conspirator, Kim Woong, and conduct a litany of internal investigations into all the prosecutors whose fingerprints are all over the criminal complaint incitement case. But even then, I’m not so sure. Lee doesn’t have long left in office, and the person tapped to be the new minister of justice is some 10 years his senior. 

Oh how far the prosecution service has fallen. Those who’ve steered it into this storm have jumped ship one by one, leaving those left to shoulder the humiliation.  

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

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