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Prosecutorial reform can only succeed by assuring independence

Prosecutorial reform can only succeed by assuring independence

Posted May. 12, 2017 07:15,   

Updated May. 12, 2017 07:20

한국어

Cho Kuk, professor of Seoul National University’s law school, has been tapped as senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Thursday. Choosing a non-former prosecutor as civil affairs secretary was simply unheard of during the Park Geun-hye or Lee Myung-bak administrations. Yun Young-chan, former vice president of Naver, a major search engine of South Korea, who used to be a journalist of the Dong-A Ilbo, has been appointed as senior secretary for public relations, and Cho Hyun-ok, a female visiting professor at Ewha Womans University, has been chosen as presidential secretary for personnel management. As to the post of general affairs secretary, which is often reserved for the president’s closest aides, Lee Young-do, former finance ministry official, assumed the position.

Secretary Yun is considered as a media expert well-versed both in paper and portal. Expectations are also high for Cho, the first female senior presidential staff in South Korea. Professor Cho Kuk, who has shown support for Moon Jae-in, the recently elected president of South Korea, has no political experience. So far, there have been no pro-Moon or pro-Roh figures among the public officials chosen by President Moon so far, including Lee Nak-yeon, the candidate for prime minister, or Presidential Chief of Staff Lim Jong-seok, and this offers a glimpse into the new administration’s commitment to integration across the broad political spectrum in South Korea.

“By appointing a scholar, instead of former prosecutors, the new administration has shown its commitment to reforming and separating entities of authority from politics,” explained Presidential Chief of Staff Lim Thursday about the appointment of Professor Cho. “Establishment of a separate body to monitor corruption cases of high-ranking public officials, and separation between the rights to investigate and prosecute were pledged by President Moon, but they are matters of legislation as well,” said Professor Cho. “I will play the role necessary to reach agreements between the ruling and opposition parties and pass the law in the National Assembly.” Cho’s remarks were declaration to reform the prosecution, a pledge that was all hype but no action in the past.

Albeit to no avail, setting up the monitoring body or separating the rights to investigation and prosecution were tried by the Roh Moo-hyun administration, in which President Moon served as presidential chief of staff, boding ill for the new government’s ambition effort for prosecutorial reform. From a realistic point of view, the reform is bound to take up much time; therefore, the more urgent step to take is to guarantee the principle of fair investigation by separating prosecution and the presidential office. “The civil affairs secretary would not be allowed to lead investigations,” presidential secretary Cho said. “Investigation should be left to the prosecution. The personnel selection for prosecution lies with the president and the justice minister, and the civil affairs secretary only 'verifies' the choices in the process."

Cho’s remarks should serve as a guideline. South Korea’s prosecution has the culture in which it reads the tacit messages from the presidential office and obeys them without the civil affairs secretary having to relay an articulate message from the president. While choosing someone without any experience at the prosecution as civil affairs secretary may contribute to enhancing independence for prosecution’s investigation, limits still exist unless the president strictly refrains from abuse of power. Reforming the prosecution should be encouraged, but the realm of investigation needs to be untouched. Guaranteeing the independence of prosecution’s investigation is the most fundamental way for prosecutorial reform.

The job of civil affairs secretary also comes with the heavy responsibility of managing the president’s family, relatives, and friends, as well as verifying personnel. Woo Byung-woo, former presidential secretary of civil affairs who served the impeached President Park Geun-hye, brought doom to the Park administration as he failed to rein in her confidante Choi Soon-sil. When Park made unreasonable appointments, Woo failed to take the glaring hints and take any action. A secretary’s action should be based on the president’s will, not his own. The corruption scandal surrounding former President Park and Choi Soon-sil, however, taught us the lesson that even if the action is taken by the president’s will, it can be met with punishment if the will is unjust. All presidential staff, including the presidential chief of staff and civil affairs secretary, must keep this lesson in mind.