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[Editorial] Prosecution reform

Rival parties strike deal on bill to reform prosecution, yet thorny issues remain

It came as a surprise that the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the main opposition People Power Party pulled off a compromise on the controversial bill that will strip the prosecution of its investigative powers.

In most cases, compromise is better than confrontation. But this does not mean that striking a deal solves all the problems at hand at once. After all, compromise is likely to entail a host of unresolved issues and grievances from those who prefer confrontation.

As for the compromise on the prosecution reform bill, tackling such post-deal problems appears tricky, to say the least.

The rival parties buried the hatchet temporarily and announced the compromise deal on prosecution reform on Friday. National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug brokered the deal, and the two parties agreed to pass the related bills in a plenary session Thursday or Friday.

At the heart of the compromise deal drawn up by Speaker Park is allowing the prosecution to temporarily keep its investigative power while cutting down the total types of crimes the prosecution can investigate from the current six to two. The two types of crime the prosecution would be allowed to investigate are corruption and economic crimes.

The deal is a softened version of the ruling party’s drastic plan to strip the prosecution of all its investigative powers by ramming the bill through at the National Assembly.

But it signals only a temporary delay, not a substantial change to the reform bill. Once a special judiciary reform committee sets up a new investigative crime agency and other related agencies strengthen their capabilities, the prosecution’s hitherto unique and overwhelming investigative powers will be completely stripped, including the remaining two crime areas.

Given that the ruling Democratic Party threatened to abuse its supermajority position in the National Assembly and came up with one trick after another to railroad the dispute-laden bill, it seems that the People Power Party had no other option but to accept the compromise deal.

If the bill passes within April, it will be promulgated during the last State Council meeting presided over by President Moon Jae-in on May 3.

By accepting the deal suggested by Speaker Park, the rival parties effectively defused escalating tensions during the transition period, with President Yoon Suk-yeol’s inauguration on May 10.

Understandably, the compromise bill faces a barrage of angry attacks. For instance, Prosecutor General Kim Oh-soo offered to resign in protest over the postponement of the ruling party’s plan on Friday. Other high-ranking prosecutors, including Deputy Prosecutor General Park Sung-jin and the heads of all six regional high prosecutors’ offices also tendered their resignations.

The Supreme Prosecutors Office officially opposed Speaker Park’s proposal, citing serious procedural problems.

Some lawmakers from the opposition party, civic organizations and legal experts expressed concerns about the forthcoming reform bill, which would overhaul the prosecution’s function.

Critics of the bill argue that the police would have to take over investigations in the other four major types of crime by around four months after the passage of the bill, which would lead to problems. Since the police are already overburdened with too many tasks and duties, this situation would lead to citizens’ complaints and extended delays in handling snowballing cases.

Worse, nobody can accurately predict how long it will take for the new investigative agency to build up enough capabilities to handle serious crimes.

Meanwhile, the police are ill-prepared to take over highly sensitive political cases such as Cheong Wa Dae’s alleged meddling in the Ulsan mayoral election, the controversial assessment of a nuclear power plant and doubts over the so-called blacklist of a state agency.

Given the opposition from prosecutors and deepening public concerns about negative side effects, both parties should discuss and implement steps to make up for the vacuum of investigative authorities.

By Korea Herald (