The Justice Ministry is showing signs of attempting to obstruct the prosecution’s investigations into allegations surrounding Minister Cho Kuk.
The vice minister and inspector general of the ministry reportedly called the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and proposed setting up a team to investigate the suspicions without receiving commands from Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. The proposal was made on Sept. 9 when Cho was inaugurated as justice minister.
Such an act intervenes in investigations and undermines their impartiality. This is a serious matter to be probed, and disciplinary actions should be taken accordingly.
Yoon is said to have turned down the offer immediately. When their calls were revealed to the public, the vice justice minister and inspector general explained that their offer was not the official position of the ministry and that they had just “exchanged opinions on ideas.” They also argued that Cho did not know about the suggestion.
But the vice minister made the offer to the deputy prosecutor general around the same time the inspector general called the chief of the anti-corruption and organized crime department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
It is hard to view their separate calls as a coincidence.
Even if they merely exchanged opinions on ideas, it is wrong to make a proposal that could affect ongoing investigations.
Considering the two officials worked as prosecutors for a long time, they might have known well that it goes against common sense to exclude the prosecutor general from investigations.
There are no legal foundations for the Justice Ministry officials except for the minister to exercise his influence.
The prosecution law stipulates only the justice minister can command and supervise the prosecutor general on a specific case.
The truth must be revealed concerning reasons why they made an inappropriate offer and whether they secretly communicated with Cho while they did so.
It is also questionable if they took the decision without discussing with Cheong Wa Dae. This must be answered, too.
It is exceptional for the prosecution to create a special investigation team that does not take orders from the prosecutor general.
A special investigation team free from the prosecutor general’s commands was created last year to reinvestigate recruitment irregularities at the Kangwon Land casino, because the then prosecutor general was suspected of having earlier made unfair instructions to prosecutors investigating the case.
However, in the case of corruption suspicions about Cho and his family, Yoon must fend off external pressures on investigations. The high-profile case is being watched by the entire nation. It is right for him to command the entire process of investigations directly and take responsibility for the consequences.
If Yoon is excluded from investigations, probes into allegations involving the justice minister will fizzle out quickly.
A day after being inaugurated as justice minister, Cho instructed the creation of a group within the ministry to support the reform of the prosecution and appointed as its leader chief of humanr rights bureau, who was a member of the Minbyon (Lawyers for Democratic Society), a civic group of progressive lawyers.
Bills to reform the prosecution, which Cho had outlined as a senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, have been already fast-tracked for approval in the National Assembly. The support group for prosecution reform has little on its plate, so it will likely be used by Cho mostly to get a grip on the prosecution.
On Saturday, the justice minister paid his respects at the tomb of a prosecutor who committed suicide apparently over stress from verbal abuse and pressure from a superior. Cho said the organizational culture of the prosecution must be changed, implying his intent to exercise his personnel and inspection authority.
If he exercises the authority to transfer prosecutors working on his case with the intention of obstructing their investigations, the measure could constitute an abuse of authority.
If Cho wants to reform the prosecution, he should start reforms after suspicions about him and those around him are cleared.
If he attempts to put pressure on investigations through the exercise of his personnel authority, he will face a stronger backlash for obstructing investigations and retaliating against prosecutors.