26.07.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

“Prosecutor Wars” Among Friends and Foes of Yoon Seok-yeol


A short while back, we covered Yoon Seok-yeol’s entry into the presidential race. This long-awaited event aggravated various law enforcement squabbles, most notably the confrontation between the Blue House and the prosecutor’s office, and which way the newly-formed Office of Investigation of Corruption Among High-Ranking Officials would begin to operate. Events are unfolding simultaneously on several fronts, so let us briefly list the main points.

Lee Sung-Yong’s career

Lee Sung-yong served formerly as chief prosecutor of the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office, and prior to that, as chief anti-corruption prosecutor. In those positions, Lee repeatedly thwarted Yoon Seok-yeol’s initiatives, and after the latter’s resignation he was even on the long list of candidates for the post of prosecutor general. But in parallel, Lee Sung-yong was being investigated for abuse of power by pressuring the investigation team to illegally prevent former Deputy Minister of Justice Kim Hak Eui from leaving the country.

On May 12, 2021, Lee Sung-yong was indicted and, with some development, Lee could become the first prosecutor of such rank to be tried on criminal charges. However, on June 4, despite his status as a suspect, Lee Sung-yong was appointed head of the entire Seoul Public Prosecutor’s Office as a result of a reshuffle at the Public Prosecutor’s Office and by order of the Minister of Justice as part of the Ministry’s efforts to retain pro-government officials in important positions. At the same time, he was replaced as head of the Central District by Lee Jung-soo, director of the Justice Ministry’s Prosecutor’s Office, who is close to Justice Minister Park Beom-kye, and the media openly report that he will follow in the latter’s footsteps, especially in terms of further blocking high-profile cases that lead to Moon’s inner circle.

Blows to Yoon’s opponents

On May 3, prosecutors indicted Rhyu Si-min, former Minister of Health, head of the Roh Moo-hyun Memorial Foundation, and an influential liberal political and media figure. The accusation was that he had slandered Han Dong-hoon, one of Yoon Seok-yeol’s loyalists and the former head of the Anti-Corruption Unit of the Attorney General’s Office, by giving false testimony in a radio interview in his speeches. Han and his department allegedly illegally monitored the movement of Yoo’s personal funds and money in his foundation accounts in November and December 2019. This was allegedly done because Yoon was an outspoken critic of the investigation into former Justice Minister Jo-guk. In January 2021, Yoo apologized, claiming his original words were false, but in March, Han filed a lawsuit against Yoo, seeking compensation for damages of 500 million won.

In May 2021, rumors surfaced that the Department of Justice was going to reinstate the Special Prosecution Unit for Securities Crimes, which was disbanded in January 2020 by Choo Mi-ae. A joint investigation team was formed in May 2013 and it consisted of prosecutors, the Financial Services Commission and the Financial Supervisory Authority, with the power to initiate an investigation if the Financial Services Commission deemed an event to be a serious financial crime. Before the team was abolished, it indicted 965 people, including those who made profits by circumventing the law through manipulation of stock prices. Choo Mi-ae accused the group of conducting illegal investigations, first by secretly negotiating with inmates and second by using inmates with financial knowledge.

On June 8, Choi Gang-wook, leader of the opposition Open Democratic Party, was found guilty of violating the election law and sentenced to a fine of 800,000 won. So the author of most of the denunciations against Yoon Seok-yeol, or more precisely, the deputy’s requests to initiate criminal proceedings, was sentenced himself.

And it is not so much that he forged a certificate of internship at his law firm by the son of Jo-guk, but that he spread false information about this fact. Although he claimed during the trial that Jo Jr. worked as an intern at his law firm, the court found him guilty based on testimony from firm employees that they had never seen Jo’s son work as an intern. Thus, the politician “may have prevented voters from making a fair and reasonable decision during the parliamentary elections.”

Even earlier, on January 28, Choi Gang-wook was sentenced to eight months in prison with a two-year suspension on charges of obstruction of business. The case was filed back on January 23, 2020, when he was the president’s secretary, and concerned the fact that he had issued a fake internship certificate to Jo-guk’s son, who used the document to enroll in two well-known law schools in Seoul.

Nevertheless, despite the two convictions, Choi remained an MP because the fine amounted to less than 1 million won, and still pursues the idea of banning former government officials from entering politics immediately after resigning, proposing to wait for at least a year.

Deputy Minister of Justice Lee Young-goo, who was the chairman of the commission that reviewed Yoon Seok-yeol’s fitness for office, also took a beating. However, the opposition was able to untwist the story when, even before his November 6 appointment, he had a drunken fight with a cab driver – the police were called to the scene, but then the victim refused to demand punishment for Lee, and the case was dismissed. Nevertheless, “amid growing anger that his attack went unpunished,” Lee first apologized, and on May 28, 2021, he was forced to write a letter of resignation.

Conviction of Yoon Seok-yeol’s mother-in-law and other accusations against him and his relatives

The mother-in-law of former Attorney General Yoon Seok-yeol was sentenced to three years in prison. The Uijeongbu District Court found Ms. Choi, 74, guilty of collaborating with three business partners to establish a medical foundation and open a geriatric hospital in February 2013, despite having no medical qualifications, which is a violation of the relevant law. In the process, the 74-year-old woman and her partners received 2.29 billion won ($2.02 million) in government benefits from the National Health Insurance Service through 2015. After the announcement of the verdict and sentencing, she was immediately taken into custody.

The investigation into the case began in 2015 and initially involved only three of Choi’s partners, leading to a four-year prison sentence for one and probation for the other two. Choi, on the other hand, escaped punishment because she received a document absolving her of all responsibility for the hospital before stepping down as board co-chair in 2014. However, the case was reopened after a group of plaintiffs, including deputy Choi Gang-wook, filed a complaint with authorities in April 2020 over various charges related to Yoon Seok-yeol, his wife and mother-in-law.

Yoon commented calmly on the verdict: “As I have repeatedly emphasized, I am convinced that no one is above the law.” But that’s not the only charge against his family, and now pro-Moon prosecutors are digging into him on several fronts.

But the conviction of Yoon’s mother-in-law is not the end of the game, with three investigative agencies considering six other charges of ethical lapses and corruption against him and his family, with any additional convictions likely to hit Yoon even harder.

Ms. Choi, already convicted once, is on a separate trial on charges of forging a bank document in the land purchase process in 2013, and defrauding a businessman of his rights to manage a memorial park.

The Seoul Central District Attorney’s Office is looking into allegations that Yoon’s wife, Ms. Kim, CEO of art event planning company Covana Contents, took bribes from companies disguised as sponsorships in 2019, given that 12 of the 16 companies signed on as sponsors after Yoon was appointed chief prosecutor. In addition, Kim is suspected of involvement in the alleged manipulation of the stock prices of Deutsch Motors, a BMW dealer, and in the purchase of shares in its subsidiary Deutsch Financial on favorable terms.

Yoon himself is the subject of an investigation by the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) into his abuse of power to stop an investigation into a major financial fraud involving Optimus Asset Management that caused more than 1.6 trillion won in losses to 4,000 investors. Furthermore, he faces allegations that he interfered with the investigation of prosecutors who were accused of forcing prison inmates to give false testimony against former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook in 2011.

And the Munist-led Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office is also investigating whether he was involved in a bribery case involving Yoon Woo-jin, the former head of the National Tax Service office in Yeongsan and the older brother of former Senior Prosecutor Yoon Dae Jin, who had a close relationship with Yoon Seok-Yool.

A shuffle in the prosecutor’s office: Yoon’s position weakens

On June 4, 2021, the Minister of Justice made a series of reshuffles in the Prosecutor’s Office that not only promoted people like Lee Seok-yeol, but also hit hard on supporters of Yoon Seok-yeol, most of whom were removed from operational work. Thus, Yoon’s loyal man, Han Dong-hoon, who resigned in early 2021, was appointed vice president of the Justice Institute, although even the new attorney general Kim Oh-soo requested that Han return to the prosecutor’s office rather than hold an honorary position.

On June 25, the Justice Department conducted another round of reshuffles, replacing about 662 employees, or more than 90 percent of mid-level prosecutors. Almost all prosecutors leading high-profile investigations have been replaced, including the Kim Hak-eui case, the nuclear power plant case, and the case against Yoon Seok-yeol’s wife. The government actually disbanded almost all of the research teams that had been digging up dirt on President Moon’s closest aides and high-ranking officials.

But several female prosecutors have been appointed to key positions, including Seo Ji-hyun, who sparked the MeToo movement in the country with her 2018 confession that she had been sexually harassed by her boss. Seo has been appointed to lead the department’s digital sex offender task force.

Another seeker of justice?

On June 28, 2021, Choi Jae-hyun, head of the ROK Bureau of Audit and Inspection, resigned, prompting a wave of speculation about his possible participation in the presidential election in 2022. Choi apologized to the nation, president, and staff for stepping down six months before the end of his four-year term, and added that he was aware of public concerns and expectations and would now reflect on what he could do for the country’s future.

The media is looking at Choi Jae-hyun as a potential alternative to Yoon Seok-yeol as an opposition candidate, and there are several good reasons for that. For several months, Choi also drew criticism from the presidential administration, trying to defend the independence and unbiased nature of his agency.  Especially after the 2020 BAI review of the Moon administration’s controversial decision to shut down the Volson-1 reactor early.  Formally it was part of Moon’s course to phase out nuclear power in the country in favor of renewable energy, but auditors found that the economic viability of the nuclear reactor had been unreasonably underestimated in a government study, after which Moon’s inner circle called BAI’s actions a politically motivated audit.

It was essentially a repeat of Yoon Seok-yeol’s story, in which the prosecutor who tried to be neutral was turned into a leading political opponent. Moon Jae-in’s administration did its best to stall BAI inspections in “politically sensitive” cases, ruling party deputies openly told Choi: “If you don’t like the leadership of the president’s administration on public affairs, you should resign.” And the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office (surprise-surprise!) began investigating Choi after a civic group supporting the current administration filed charges.

The Blue House has asked the auditor general several times to recommend former Vice Minister of Justice Kim Oh-soo, who is considered loyal to Moon, as a board member. But Choi refused, citing Kim’s pro-government tendencies that might have undermined the Bureau’s political neutrality. Moon later appointed Kim as attorney general.

On July 7, 2021, Choi Jae-hyun officially expressed his intention to enter politics. In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, he said he had made up his mind, but added that he would need more time to sort out his plans for the future, possibly including whether to run for president next year.  This was perceived both as another blow to the Moon administration and as a threat to Yoon Seok-yeol – two candidates with a similar image would either have to agree or divide the electorate.

Evidently, “the fights result in varying success,” but so far Yoon seems to be holding ground and continues to pose a threat to power, although if he was previously a strong leader in the candidate ratings, presently he and his main opponent are going head to head, now falling behind and now pulling away.

And the closer the presidential election comes, the more actively they will try to drown him in the absence of strong candidates, both for Moon (not for the Democrats in general) and for his opponents. But about this – another day.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, 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”.

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