Late 2020 put a decisive end to the confrontation between Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae: season one in this political series ended with a victory for Yoon, but a second season, and perhaps one that is no less exciting, may begin in the new year.
For those who have not been following this subject. In July 2019, President Moon appointed Yoon as the Prosecutor General in recognition of his role as a member of an independent group of lawyers investigating former President Park Geun-hye. Yoon also spearheaded an investigation of former President Lee Myung-bak, which led to an indictment and conviction for taking bribes. At that time, Yoon was considered the right person to root out the “old sins” of previous administrations, and during the appointment ceremony Moon told him: “as long as there is corruption, investigate the current political power without any restrictions.”
But Yoon has elicited the ire of the Blue House by targeting the family of Cho Kuk, the ex-Minister of Justice and Moon’s confidant, due to his daughter’s alleged college admission fraud and his wife’s shady investments. The prosecutor’s office took up cases involving close presidential aides accusing them of bribery, election fraud, and influence peddling. These cases include the early shutdown of the Wolsong-1 nuclear reactor in the wake of Moon’s aspirations for a nuclear-free energy policy, the presidential administration’s interference in the election of the mayor of Ulsan, Song Cheol-ho, a longtime friend of Moon, and the scandal over financial fraud associated with the power of the Lime and Optimus pyramid funds.
Yoon’s battle with the Blue House lasted all year, but on December 16 a disciplinary committee at the Ministry of Justice suspended Yoon from work for two months, and the next day after that the prosecutor general filed a lawsuit.
On December 22, the Seoul Administrative Court began deliberations behind closed doors – the same court that had granted a preliminary injunction on December 1 that stayed the temporary suspension on him imposed by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae. Yoon was not present at the hearing, but argued that barring him from performing his duties seriously undermined the values of political impartiality and independence for the prosecutor’s office. In addition, without him, the serious investigations mentioned above could fall apart.
On December 23, the Seoul Central District Court sentenced Cho Kuk’s wife, Chung Kyung-sim, to four years in prison for forging documents for her daughter’s admission to medical school, as well as financial fraud. There was too much evidence to spin songs about how the prosecutor’s office imprisoned an innocent woman.
In the midst of this, on December 24 the court resumed its hearing and, after much debate, decided to reinstate Yoon Seok-youl as prosecutor general. When making this decision, the court cited procedural deficiencies in the disciplinary process, and the irreparable damage that could be caused by removing him from office. The court noted that the alleged suspicions put forth were poorly substantiated, pointed out flaws in the process of forming the committee and continuing to implement the penalty, and rejected the Ministry of Justice’s assertion that it should not have intervened since the decision had been approved by the president.
The decision provoked mixed reactions from political parties. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea expressed “deep regret” that the court did not take into account the seriousness of the violations committed by the prosecutor general, and concern that public distrust toward the authorities could increase, leading to deepening national polarization.
Moon’s more ardent supporters called the court’s ruling a coup, demanding full-scale reform in the legal sector. Deputy Kim Doo-gwan even suggested impeaching the prosecutor general, since “this is nothing more than a coup d’état that has suspended the power of a president who was elected by the people. Without reforming the prosecutor’s office, there is no guarantee that Korea will see its democracy develop, and support the power of the president … We must take all possible measures to normalize the policies controlled by the prosecutor’s office and the courts,” Kim wrote on Facebook.
Other disgruntled people rushed to submit petitions demanding the impeachment of the prosecutor general because “the prosecution, led by Yoon, abused its power to conduct an unfair, unfounded, investigation directed against the ruling bloc – one that was not done for the sake of the people or justice, but for their own interests.” There were more than 70,000 of them (if we count bots), and more than 400,000 people signed a petition calling for the impeachment of the judges who sentenced Chung Kyung-sim, stating that the verdict was politically motivated and the judges violated the Constitution, which requires judges to pass rulings guided by their consciences.
Another member of the ruling party, Jung Chung-rae, decided to propose a bill that bans any petitions for injunctions if they entail winning the respective lawsuits. In the legislator’s opinion, if a civil servant actually wins a lawsuit by winning an injunction, the court should not allow that injunction.
In this context, professor of philosophy at Hanshin University Yun Peng-chung stated that Moon’s zealous supporters are destroying the basic principle of the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers. “They only have a fascist polarization between their comrades and their enemies, as well as a blind worship of their leaders.”
On December 28, Choo Mi-ae posted a call to impeach Yoon on her YouTube channel. However, an initiative like this was criticized not only by the opposition, but also by her more sane colleagues. After all, even if the parliament accepts the impeachment proposal, it will be stopped by the Constitutional Court due to the absence of any legal grounds, and this may “give the opposition the ammunition for a counterattack on us.”
For its part, the largest opposition party, the People Power Party, welcomed the court’s decision as one that attests to the fact that the rule of law continues in the country. Other opposition parties also called the court’s ruling a prudent one.
As The Korea Times wrote in an article signed by its editor-in-chief, “The court’s move should be seen as a step in the right direction, putting the brakes on a reckless and irresponsible attempt to force Yoon to leave office. Any prosecutor or government official should be disciplined if they violate the code of conduct, or break the law. But it is unprecedented for the government to take disciplinary action against the prosecutor general for allegations of wrongdoing that were not based on facts or evidence.”
The Blue House branded Yoon as an enemy, sharply dividing the nation between progressives and conservatives. He was accused of violating the prosecutor office’s political neutrality by conducting politically motivated investigations that run counter to Moon’s prosecutorial reforms. But it was Moon who trampled on political neutrality and the autonomy enjoyed by law enforcement agencies, and undermined the rule of law by trying to cover up the crimes committed by their colleagues and political tycoons.
President Moon came to power through widescale anti-corruption rallies that precipitated the fall of Park Geun-hye. However, much to the public’s dismay Moon’s government committed the same errors of an incompetent and corrupt administration by failing to keep its promise to build a just, fair, and equitable society.
The country’s president, Moon Jae-in, proclaimed that he “respects” the court’s ruling. And the next day he apologized to the public “for causing inconvenience and confusion.” In the wake of this, on December 23 the president’s approval rating fell down to 36.6%, and continues to fall, which some experts have deemed the beginning of Moon Jae-in’s transformation into a “lame duck”.
On December 30, 2020, Moon Jae In instituted partial changes in the government, replacing two ministers and one agency director, including Choo Mi-ae. On that same day, Chief of Staff You Young-min, Chief Presidential Secretary for Policy Kim Sang-jo, and Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Kim Jong-ho told the president about their intention to resign.
In this framework, what needs to be understood is who the new (fourth in a row) minister of justice is. The 57-year-old Park Beom-kye began his career as a judge in 1994 after passing the state bar exam, and under Roh Moo-hyun worked at the Blue House as the presidential secretary for civil affairs and the presidential secretary for legal affairs, and later on was the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs. He has been on this team for a long time, and even back when preparing to become a judge Park interviewed Roh Moo-hyun – who was a lawyer then – for the student magazine where he was the editor-in-chief.
He was elected to the National Assembly in 2008, and served three parliamentary terms as a member of the parliament’s committees on legislation and the judiciary, strategy, and finance. The latest bill he introduced was geared toward making it easier to set up the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials.
The Blue House credits Park with having great insight and experience working in the judiciary, government, and the National Assembly. However, just like Choo Mi-ae, he did not have any experience working in the prosecutor’s office.
And what is Park’s attitude towards Yoon? As Prosecutor General Yoon’s fellow student when he was at the forensic research and scientific institute, Park had great confidence in Yoon. In 2013, Park made comments in support of Yoon on his Facebook page, and called him a virtuous prosecutor. But after Yoon launched an investigation into the allegations of corruption surrounding former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his family, Park turned his back on Yoon, and as a legislative deputy, accused him of meting out justice selectively.
On that same day, December 30, Choo Mi-ae said that she would not appeal the injunction that returned the prosecutor general to his post. “In consideration of the concerns about confusion and public division that could result from seeking an immediate correction through an appellate trial, I have decided it would be more responsible to do my best to right (the wrong) through the original suit.” “As the minister who requested disciplinary action against the prosecutor general, I feel deeply sorry for causing great confusion to the people,” she added.
Now what? Following the results of “season one,” it can be said that the battlefield has now been left to Yoon Seok-youl. Choo Mi-ae has resigned, but in 2021 we may see a “season two” in this political series – one in which Yoon Seok-youl’s authority as prosecutor general ends, and Moon’s attorney general and Moon’s Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials starts to do work.
Unlike Choo Mi-ae, the new minister is a professional lawyer, and not a political appointee. He sees the public’s disappointment with the chaos created by the Minister of Justice in her war against the prosecutor’s office, and has already stated that “he will complete the reforms for the prosecutor’s office, while listening carefully to the voice of the people,” something which is perceived as a sign that less ultraism is prevailing.
On the other hand, Choe Kang-wook, the president of the Open Democratic Party and the author of most of the petitions against the prosecutor general and his family, indicated that Yoon Seok-youl was the first target of the CIO’s investigation. In addition, a bill has been proposed that would oblige incumbent prosecutors and judges to resign more than a year before they run for public office. The bill, if passed, would make it impossible for Yoon to run for president in March 2022.
Therefore, it is still impossible to say that everything is over.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.