Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae was arrested early Thursday and jailed at the Seoul Detention Center. Arrested 489 days after his retirement from the top judiciary post in September 2017, Yang described his complex feelings during an arrest warrant review hearing as “disgraceful.” He probably considered standing in front of a younger judge as a criminal suspect more than his personal humiliation and a disgrace to the judiciary branch. The court rejected once again an arrest warrant for former Supreme Court Justice Park Byung-dae that the prosecution filed for the second time.
Judge Myung Jae-kwon at the Seoul District Court who reviewed the arrest warrant issued it, saying that there was prima facie evidence for much of his alleged crimes and that the case was “significant.” The judge recognized the possibility that Yang will seek to destroy evidence that the former chief justice met defense lawyers representing Japan over Japan’s wartime forced slavery case, the circumstantial evidence that he had marked “V” for “judges who caused troubles” and former and incumbent lawyers’ testimonies against him. However, it is still questionable whether there was evidence and reasons enough to put a former chief justice into jail. The issuance of an arrest warrant is nothing but a court’s recognition that a forceful investigation is necessary. Whether he is guilty or not of abuse of official authority, the key allegation against him, will be determined through court trials.
The labor union of court employees and the umbrella Korea Confederation of Trade Unions put heavy pressures for Yang’s detention. Under a circumstance where a warrant-reviewing judge was under heavy pressures, it could have been difficult for him to take full consideration of the principles of investigations and trials without detention. It is regrettable that the former chief justice faces trails while in detention at a time when two former presidents are in the same situation.
The prosecution is bracing up for Yang’s trials, saying that his arrest is only the beginning. It is natural that prosecutors make all-out efforts into proving the defendant’s guilt, but they should not fall into the temptation of excessively expanding their probes. This is not to say that they should pull punches at investigating politicians. It is necessary to remember that a senior investigator called for “investigations that keep the judiciary alive.” The judiciary and the prosecution are essential organizations for establishing justice. If either one is shaken, justice will also be shaken at the expense of the public’s interest.
Judges who have been shocked by their former chief’s arrest are concerned over possible public distrust over their rulings on controversial former cases including the disbandment of the United Progressive Party. Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-soo bowed his head twice as he was going to work on Thursday, saying he was “devastated and ashamed” by his predecessor’s arrest. He will be able to recover the damaged public trust over the judicial system only by blocking pressures from both the inside and the outside that undermine the judiciary’s independence and promote an atmosphere where judges make rulings in accordance with law and conscience. Each individual judge should make efforts to clean up and reform the judiciary so that it can overcome the infamy and open a new chapter in its history.