Tension is mounting between the prosecution and Justice Ministry, with embattled Justice Minister Cho Kuk pushing for an overhaul of the powerful law enforcement agency and prosecutors accelerating a probe into corruption allegations involving his family.
Controversy surfaced Wednesday after Justice Ministry’s senior officials were reported to have suggested high-ranking officials from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office set up an investigation team excluding Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl. Yoon reportedly rejected the suggestion.
Amid criticism the ministry attempted to exercise pressure over the prosecution regarding the probe into the justice minister’s family, the ministry said it was only a personal exchange of ideas.
Cho said Wednesday he had learned about it through news reports.
“As it is sensitive timing, everybody should be careful about what they say,” Cho said.
Earlier this week, Moon appointed Cho as justice minister despite fierce resistance from the opposition bloc and negative public sentiments toward him. He is the right person to complete the judiciary reform, Moon said.
The first order Cho gave as new justice minister, who holds control over the prosecution, was to form a team to support the reform of the prosecution. He appointed a person with no work experience in the prosecution to head the team. Curbing strong ties between the Justice Ministry and the prosecution has been on the judicial reform agenda.
The Moon administration has pushed to hand over more investigative powers to police and establish an independent body tasked with probing corruption allegations involving high-ranking government officials as part of the reform.
The prosecution is accelerating its investigation into allegations surrounding Cho’s family under the direct supervision of the prosecutor-general.
Just before Moon’s appointment of Cho, prosecutors raided more than 20 locations and indicted Cho’s wife on forgery charges, which critics denounced as politically motivated.
Cho said Tuesday he would not be briefed on the status of the investigation of his family.
At the center of the investigation is Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-shim, a professor at Dongyang University. She is suspected of having fabricated a certificate to help her daughter gain acceptance to a medical school and having been involved in making a shady investment.
Hearings on whether to arrest those related to the private equity fund Cho’s family had invested in were held Wednesday.
The CEO of private equity firm Co-Link Private Equity, surnamed Lee, as well as the head of local firm Wealth C&T, surnamed Choi, who received funding from Co-Link Private Equity, attended the hearing held at Seoul Central District Court on Wednesday morning.
Lee, who operated the fund, is suspected of having exaggerated the amount of the investment he received from Cho’s wife and children.
The fund put its money mostly into Choi’s company. The company then reportedly won a series of projects and paid Cho’s wife for business advice. Cho was senior secretary to the president for civil affairs at the time.
The Seoul Central District Court refused to issue an arrest warrant for both of them, saying more relevant evidence is needed.
The court's decision is expeccted to lead the prosecution's ongoing investigation to lose steam in a situation where prosecutors were already criticized over unprecedentedly sweeping probe at a politically sensitive timing, pundits say.
A relative of Cho allegedly pushed witnesses at his parliamentary confirmation hearing to make false statements regarding operations of the private equity fund, according to a recording made public Wednesday by Rep. Yoo Min-bong of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.
Cho’s wife protested the revelation of the recording, saying her defense rights are being severely violated.