12.08.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

ROK Police against Yoon Suk-yeol


The last years of Moon Jae-in’s reign were remembered for the war of the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Justice, which resulted in the election of the former Prosecutor General by the president. But it seems that during the reign of Yoon Suk-yeol, we can observe a confrontation between the presidential administration, the Ministry of Security and Public Administration (MOSPA) and the national police agency.

We need a backstory here. Both under the Japanese and under the military dictatorship, the police had very large powers and were under the control of the then Ministry of Internal Affairs. At the grassroots level, the policeman was the main representative of the authorities, and not just a “servant of order.” The level of repression and brutality was also appropriate, and it is worth pointing out that in June 1986, the student Park Jeong-cheol, whose death began the fall of the regime of Chun Doo-hwan, was “tortured” to death by the police, not the special services. In addition, some political scandals related to those in power were often hidden or falsified.

Therefore, when the Democrats came to power, they pretty much weakened the powers of the police, and, more importantly, in 1991 they made it a structure not directly subordinate to the MOSPA, which plays a much smaller role in the South Korean administrative system than the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

However, during the reign of Moon Jae-in and his pogroms in law enforcement agencies, the National Police Agency (NPA) was entrusted with most of the powers of first intelligence, and then the prosecutor’s office. In January 2021, the police received the authority to conduct investigations and the right to close them independently. From September 2022, as soon as the draft laws aimed at depriving the prosecutor’s office of its investigative powers come into force, the police will be able to investigate any serious crimes, with the exception of corruption and economic ones. In 2024, it will receive the authority to conduct anti-espionage investigations and other political crimes from the National Intelligence Service. Although it was planned to divide the police into a municipal one and an analog of the FBI, which would deal with major crimes, it is unclear to what extent this reform organized by Moon under Yoon Suk-yeol will barely be brought to an end.

As a result, it turns out that something needs to be done with the police, since it a) has too many powers, and b) exists outside the main control of the state, which is fraught with all the troubles that accompany lack of control. It is not just about corruption itself. The police, especially the municipal police (if they are separated), will be very unstable to influence from, let’s say, “local respected people.” This is very important, given that it is municipalities that should investigate sexual crimes and domestic violence. Many “unprofitable” crimes can eventually be “hidden under the carpet.”

Under Moon Jae-in, the interaction between the state and the police, as a rule, passed through the office of the Senior Secretary of the President for Civil Affairs, who often “recommended” which way the police should dig and which not.  But Yoon Seok-yeol abolished this post, which allowed him to interfere too actively in the affairs of society. And the question arose, “how to direct the work of the police in the new conditions.”

Already in May, the government has begun to discuss ways to control increased police power by creating a committee to improve the police system. The guidelines include various new measures for the ministry to control the police directly, including ministry authorities being able to hire, fire and punish police officers. Then, although, in accordance with the Constitution of the country, the Law on Police Officers and the Law on Criminal Procedure, the role of the Ministry assumed cooperation with the NPA (from the development of new laws concerning the police to the definition of job descriptions), the Ministry still did not have a unit dedicated to supporting such tasks.  And on June 21, 2022, it was recommended to create it by giving it, among other things, the authority to audit police investigations, personnel management and police inspection, including the right to recommend candidates for senior positions, and entrust the Minister of Internal Affairs with the right to demand disciplinary measures against the Head of the National Police Department and other high-ranking police officers.  Cutting to the chase, this all resulted in a “goodbye, independence” situation.

On the same day, a curious incident occurred. On June 21, the NPA published a document in the media containing a list of 28 high-ranking officials applying for promotion. But just two hours later, the second list was published, in which seven officials from the first list were replaced by other positions as a result of the MOSPA decisions. Yoon Seok-yeol, who did not support the first list, said it was either a violation of national discipline or a senseless mistake by government officials.

Police officials, of course, are against it. For some, this is a blow to selfish interests, and here we can recall how in the cases of Cho Kuk or Kim Kyung-soo, key evidence was “lost” precisely at the stage of a police investigation. For others, this is a fear that the new bureau will “cut off” the capabilities of the police, because some things will have to be coordinated, and this takes time. Someone really believes that the police should be independent, and these sentiments are actively inflated by Democrats, in whose narrative they want to violate the political neutrality of the police, because, they say, Yoon is building a totalitarian police state, and in the future wants to bring back the “dark times.” As the de facto leader of the Democrats, Lee Jae-myung, stated that “there can be no question of democracy in Korea without a history of police independence from political power.” “The task of the police is to protect public interests, not the authorities.” Woo Sang-ho, the interim head of the Democratic Party of Korea, also burst into rhetorical questions about why it was possible for prosecutors to protest, but not for police officers.

On June 27, 2022, the head of the MOSPA, Lee Sang-min, told reporters that the new police control unit will be staffed with a total of 16 employees, with 12 of them being from the police. In addition, the Ministry will develop a number of regulations giving the Minister the right to approve or reject key policy decisions of the police and receive reports from the police on key issues, including the budget. The Minister of Internal Affairs will also have the right to receive preliminary reports on key legislative proposals or other issues that the police submit for approval by the Cabinet of Ministers, as well as plans for foreign business trips of the Chief of the National Police.

On the same day, June 27, the Police Chief of the ROK, Kim Chang-ryong, whose term of office expired in 26 days, resigned, thereby taking responsibility for the incident with appointments and added that the creation of the proposed police bureau would fundamentally undermine the foundations of the police system.

On July 23, despite repeated warnings from the leadership of the NPA, 190 superintendent-level police chiefs (one third of the total number across the country) gathered at the Institute of Human Resources Development of the Police in the city of Asan.  50 attended in person, and 140 were present in remote format. Following the results of the four-hour meeting, the participants came to the conclusion that the creation of a new supervisory structure violates the principle of the rule of law and is illegal, and the MOSPA must obtain the consent of 130 thousand police officers to such a step before insisting on it.

Such a group action of disobedience by high-ranking police officers was unprecedented.

The main “rebel” was Ryu (Yu) Sam-young, the senior superintendent of the police station of the Central District of Ulsan, according to whom police officers are deeply concerned that the ministry’s plan “will jeopardize the investigative neutrality and fundamental responsibility of the national police.” Interestingly if this is due to the fact that Superintendent Ryu runs a police station in Ulsan, where during Moon’s reign the police helped his protege win the mayoral election by unleashing a loud campaign on the corruption of his rival, the incumbent mayor and his assistants. When the elections were held, it turned out that “the facts were not confirmed,” but it was too late to wave his fists after the fight.

Two hours after the meeting, Ryu was suspended from work, and the authorities initiated a disciplinary investigation against 50 police officers who took part in the meeting in person, not in remote format.

A day later, the head of the presidential administration, Kim Dae-gi, sharply criticized the meeting, while calling the meeting “inappropriate.” According to him, there are three agencies that are “more powerful” than the ministries, namely, the prosecutor’s office, the police department and the tax service, but the prosecutor’s office and the tax service are controlled by the relevant departments of other ministries.

Minister Lee Sang-min went further on July 25. He said that “if it happened in the army, it would be like a coup on December 12,” referring to the military coup led by Chun Doo-hwan.

In addition, Lee rejected claims that it is unfair for the government to allow prosecutors to hold such meetings and prohibit police officers from doing so, while stressing that the police are different from the prosecutor’s office because they are an organization that owns firearms.

Yoon Suk-yeol did not speak out much, but on July 25 he said that he expected the Ministry and the NPA to take “the necessary steps.”

The media assessed the demarche differently. The conservative JoongAng Ilbo writes, “And yet, senior police officers’ choice of a frontal clash with the government was not the wisest course. … If they launch a collective action just because they don’t like a government policy, who will keep them from resorting to more extreme action?”

Korea Herald draws attention to the fact that police officers opposing the bureau cite Paragraph 1 of Article 34 of the Government Organization Law that lists Interior and Safety Minister’s jobs.. The paragraph has no mention of “policing”. But Paragraph 5 of the same article specifies that the National Police Agency is placed under the control of Interior and Safety Minister in order to administer police work. Then, when the police were controlled by the Senior Secretary of the President for Civil Affairs, no officer made such arguments, but how is subordination to the ministry different from subordination to the Blue House under Moon?

On July 26, a draft resolution on changing the structure of the MOSPA and creating a police department was approved at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers of the ROK. On the same day, opposition deputies held a protest rally in front of the presidential office by accusing the government of an administrative coup.

After that, on July 26, Yoon Suk-yeol said that the collective actions of police officers against the planned creation of a police department under the Ministry of Internal Affairs could be equated to “a serious breach of national discipline.” Yoon acknowledged there could be “various opinions,” but noted “a nation’s fundamental order and discipline should not be shaken.”

On July 29, the Ministry appointed the first head of the new police department, Senior Superintendent Kim Sun-ho, who previously headed the National Security Investigation Bureau of the NPA, and on August 2, the department began its work. The new body consists of 16 people, 12 of whom are representatives of the police, and three departments are specialized on general, personnel and regional police issues. Interestingly, when appointing, priority was given not to graduates of the police university, but to those who made a career in the police from the very bottom.

According to the Ministry, the police bureau will be responsible for introducing police-related bills to the Cabinet of Ministers, as well as for managing the personnel of high-ranking officers and supporting other law enforcement activities.

To what extent did the protests end there, and what is the reaction of society? The latest survey on this topic says that 56% consider the bureau inappropriate. They are afraid of compromising the political neutrality and independence of law enforcement agencies. About 32% said it was a necessary step to curb the growing power of the police.

The Democratic Party is also not going to lay down its arms having created a “reaction committee” and asked Ryu Sam-yong to appear to testify at the confirmation hearings for the new head of the NPA.

Anyway, the Yoon government has started an important but painful reform of the law enforcement agencies, and time will tell how much better he will do with the police than Moon Jae-in did with the prosecutor’s office. We will keep an eye on it.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.



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