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Lawmakers divided over establishing powerful corruption watchdog

The National Assembly is divided over a proposal to establish a new investigation agency to watch over senior officials, amid concerns over its powerful authority.

According to the proposal unveiled Monday, the new body would have precedence over the existing investigative arms, the prosecution and police. It would be able to hire 30 to 50 prosecutors and 50 to 70 investigators, which means the size of the new entity could grow to up to some 120 members at most. The three-year term agency chief is envisioned to be nominated by the National Assembly and chosen by the president. 

Justice Ministry's reform committee (Yonhap)
Justice Ministry's reform committee (Yonhap)

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea and minor opposition parties largely agreed with the idea, while the main opposition Liberty Korea Party expressed strong criticism, saying the new agency would only create another power structure.

“With more than 80 percent of citizens demanding such a governmental body, now is the time for the National Assembly to respond,” the ruling Democratic Party’s spokeswoman, Rep. Back Hye-ryun, said in a press release Monday. According to a poll by Hankook Research in February, more than 87 percent of the respondents supported the creation of a separate body to tackle corruption among the country’s power elite.

In the press release, Back explained that similar laws have been proposed 13 times in the past two decades, starting with the Corruption Prevention Law billed in the 15th National Assembly in 1996.

However, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party claims that the establishment of the agency would create “a super authority” and that it would be an “authority above authority.”

The party’s Chairman Hong Joon-pyo lashed out at the government, saying it is trying to create an agency with “absolute power” and highlighting that lawmakers had already introduced an independent counsel system last year to watch over senior public officials.

“It is enough with a poodle, but (the government) is letting a fierce dog loose,” he wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday.

A day before, the party’s spokeswoman Rep. Jun Hee-kyung had also criticized the government, saying it is only trying to make public institutes obey the president.

“Can you call it true reform to create another grand authority body to gain power?” the first-term lawmaker said in a press release.

The two other opposition parties -- the minor centrist People’s Party and conservative splinter Bareun Party -- appear to support the creation of the new agency, but they are also raising concerns over its extended power and authority.

While acknowledging the need for such an agency, the splinter Bareun Party expressed concerns over the amount of power that the watchdog could wield.

Its acting Chairman and Floor Leader Rep. Joo Ho-young demanded ways to ensure the planned agency keeps its independence at a party meeting Tuesday.

Rep. Son Kum-ju, spokesman for the People’s Party, highlighted the extensive target of investigations and warned that the agency could become an institute for the president.

The recommendation from the reform committee appears to give much more power to the proposed agency compared to the legislature proposed by lawmakers.

It states that those subject to investigation by the agency would include the president, the prime minister, national legislators, Supreme Court justices, Constitutional Court justices, local government and education chiefs, prosecutors and senior police officials.

Also subject to investigation would be former senior officials who left their posts within the last three years, as well as family members of these public officials, including spouses, parents, children, brothers and sisters.

Crimes that the new agency is supposed to handle include bribery, illegal political funding, blackmailing, dereliction of duties, election interference, abuse of power and divulging classified information.

The all-civilian committee was first established as part of President Moon Jae-in’s pledge to reform the country, which has long suffered from the bribery and corruption scandals of senior officials and lawmakers. While the committee’s suggestions are nonbinding, the ministry said it would accept the suggestions as far as possible.

By Jo He-rim (