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[Editorial] A second prosecution

Ruling party to prioritize bill to form agency to probe senior officials, but concerns remain

The prosecution on Monday sought an arrest warrant for Chung Kyung-sim, wife of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, on 10 charges related to her daughter’s university admission and her investments in a private equity fund. It is getting to the bottom of corruption allegations surrounding his family.

Given this situation, the ruling Democratic Party has vowed to prioritize its bill to create an agency to investigate irregularities among high-ranking officials -- including the president, lawmakers, mayors, governors, judges and prosecutors.

Setting up such an agency is covered by two of the four bills that special parliamentary committees fast-tracked in April. The ruling party struck a deal with three minor opposition parties to revise election law in favor of minor parties and fast-track the bills, including election reforms, over the main opposition party’s fierce bid to block them. The four are an electoral reform bill, two competing bills to create an agency to probe corruption among senior officials and one to adjust investigative power between the prosecution and police.

At that time, the ruling party compromised with the three opposition parties to process the election reform bill first in the plenary session. Now the Democratic Party is rushing to create a new investigative unit as its top priority. One cannot but wonder why it is focusing on setting up a separate prosecution-like agency while risking the breakdown of its deal with the opposition parties. It appears it is trying to put pressure on the investigations into Cho’s family.

Creating another law enforcement agency is an issue that has to be to dealt with prudently. Merits and demerits must be examined wisely.

To begin with, prosecution reforms need to be considered. Debates on prosecution reforms stem from the perception that the prosecution is so powerful that human rights can be ignored easily and that it is compliant with politicians in power.

Naturally the goal of reforms should lie in weakening the bloated power of the prosecution and guaranteeing its political neutrality.

But it is questionable if it is the right way of attaining the goal to create such an agency as the second prosecution. This proposal will likely produce side effects. Investigating suspects differently depending on their social standings goes against the principle that everyone is equal before the law. Members of the public will be investigated by the existing system, while high-ranking officials will be probed by a separate agency.

Rep. Lee Jong-kul, co-chairman of the ruling party’s special committee for prosecution reforms, said Sunday that “the new agency aims at investigating people like Hwang Kyo-ahn (leader of the largest opposition Liberty Korea Party).” Even though he made the remark apparently to evoke old suspicions denied by Hwang that he may have received bribes from Samsung Group in 1999 when he was a senior prosecutor, Lee’s words clearly indicate the likelihood of the new agency being used covertly to target politicians from opposition parties.

Under the Democratic Party’s bill on a new investigation unit, its head will be selected by the president from two candidates recommended by a seven-member panel. The president’s nomination and appointment right can cause disputes over the political independence of the agency. Also, its neutrality can be shaken easily because the opposition parties can recommend just two of the seven members.

The same is true with the agency’s prosecutors. Under the bill, they will be selected from those with experience in investigations and then recommended by the head of the agency to the president for appointment. However, former prosecutors with careers at prosecution offices cannot account for half of the agency’s officials. So more than half of its prosecutor posts are likely to be filled with progressive lawyers agreeable with the current regime and the fairness of investigations will be doubted.

The ruling party vows to put its bill on the new agency to a vote in the Assembly plenary session after the parliamentary deliberation ends on Oct. 28. Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan said the party must never miss the chance created by Cho and his supporters to reform the prosecution. But the bill has several problems that cause concerns about abuse. With the problems left unfixed, a “second” prosecution will likely undermine the impartiality of investigations. Furthermore, a probe of the former justice minister’s family is underway. The bill must not be rushed.