The new justice minister’s first reshuffle of senior prosecutors looks like the prologue of “Choo Mi-ae Season 2.”
Justice Minister Park Beom-kye kept the existing few loyalists to Choo, his predecessor, in key posts Sunday.
About a year ago, Choo disbanded teams who were investigating allegations involving people around Moon under the command of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, relegated prosecutors of the teams, sending some of them far away from Seoul, and filled important posts with her obedient prosecutors.
In his New Year’s press conference on Jan. 18, Moon called Yoon the “prosecutor general of his administration” as if he was embracing the top prosecutor, raising a faint expectation that the new minister may be different from Choo. But little changed.
Yoon’s opinions were effectively ignored, though Park had two meetings with Yoon, unlike Choo who never met with him before reshuffling prosecutors.
Yoon is said to have conveyed his opinion that a personnel transfer is needed for Lee Sung-yoon, the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, as he is dragging his feet with investigations into suspicions surrounding figures close to the president.
But Lee remained in his post.
Lee, who graduated from the same university as Moon, has put a brake on several investigations. Those include Cheong Wa Dae’s alleged intervention in the Ulsan mayoral election to get an old friend of Moon’s elected, the Optimus fund scam and the alleged collusion between a ranking prosecutor -- who is an aide to Yoon -- and a former reporter.
In the collusion case, the investigation team found suspicions about the prosecutor groundless and asked Lee to sign off on its plan not to indict the prosecutor. However, Lee has put the request on hold, citing an absurd reason that he will put off his decision until a “new technology will be developed to unlock the prosecutor’s smartphone that was seized.”
Earlier, Lee ignored another team’s request for his approval on its plan to indict Rep. Choe Kang-wook, the leader of the Open Democratic Party, for issuing a fake internship certificate for the son of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. Then, Yoon directly ordered the team to indict Choe. The lawmaker was convicted in the first trial.
Also, Lee is said to have blocked the expansion of the investigation into the illegality of banning former Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-eui from leaving the country, though Kim was not a criminal suspect at the time. The ban came several days after Moon ordered a reinvestigation into Kim.
Lee’s attempts to slow down or block investigations made his subordinates turn their backs on him.
In December when the ministry pushed to discipline the prosecutor general on unconvincing grounds, all of the four ranking prosecutors under Lee’s immediate control visited him to demand he resign. All of the other prosecutors in the Central District Prosecutors’ Office issued a statement critical of Lee.
It is not hard to guess the intent of keeping Lee in place though he has lost trust from his subordinates. Park had given him a message to keep blocking investigations into people around the president.
Shim Jae-cheol, chief of the criminal affairs bureau of the ministry, was replaced by Lee Jeong-soo, head of the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office. Shim took over Lee’s post. Lee is a prosecutor who argued for the ministry’s disciplinary action against Yoon.
Shim played a prominent role in helping Choo push to expel Yoon, sometimes going against regulations. The High Prosecutors’ Office is currently investigating suspicions of Shim’s illegal intervention in the SPO inspectors’ search of an investigative intelligence division for evidence that could buttress the ministry’s suspension of Yoon.
As head of the Southern District Prosecutors’ Office, Shim will oversee investigations of two cases that may affect the Moon regime negatively: the Lime fund scandal and KBS’ false report on the alleged prosecutor-reporter collusion.
Before Choo took office as justice minister, it was customary for the minister to respect the prosecutor general’s opinions in the reshuffle of prosecutors. Choo flouted the custom. She filled important posts with her loyalists and trampled the independence of the prosecution through them. Park’s reshuffle does not look much different from hers. He took the first step, following in her footsteps.