The government’s proposal to establish a new investigative agency that will deal exclusively with corruption and other crimes involving senior members of the three government branches has both positive and negative aspects.
The proposal worked out by a panel commissioned by the justice minister calls for the agency to investigate cases involving many of the ruling elite and their family members: the president and other members of the Cabinet, national legislators, prosecutors, judges, justices, governors, mayors, education superintendents, senior police officers and military generals.
Wrongful activities to be targeted by the agency will include bribery, abuse of power, dereliction of duty, interference in elections and illegal political funding.
One of the positive points of the proposal is that the first step has been taken to reform the nation’s prosecutorial system, which has been dominated by a state prosecution that is tied to political power.
The state prosecution -- which now is the only body with the right to indict criminal suspects -- has been accused of abusing its power to help the government over many administrations. The prosecution has also often been criticized for going easy on criminal cases involving incumbent and former prosecutors.
There has been talk of taking some power away from the prosecution over the past 20 years, but any such proposal -- along with the suggestion to give the police the right to indict -- has never made progress due to strong resistance from the state prosecution and a lack of support from politicians.
Even now, there are signs of the prosecution trying to dig its heels in. In an apparent gesture of defiance toward what it views as outside pressure, the state prosecution convened the first meeting of its own reform panel the day after the government’s proposal for the new agency was announced.
The second positive element of the proposal is that the installation of a new agency that targets only senior officials will bolster the fight against corruption involving high-level officials in the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Opinion surveys show more than 80 percent of Koreans support the agency, testifying to the need to crack down harder on corruption in officialdom.
Despite these merits, there are some negative elements of the proposal. Most of all, the agency will face the same question about its political independence and neutrality as the state prosecution.
The biggest problem is the way the agency’s chief is appointed. The proposal calls for a nomination panel -- which will consist of the justice minister, minister of the National Court Administration, Korean Bar Association and four members to be picked by the National Assembly -- to nominate two candidates, among whom the president is to select one.
That would certainly make the agency as susceptible to control by the president as the current prosecution, giving rise to the criticism that it will only result in another powerful investigative body in the hands of the president.
Moreover, the envisaged agency will have precedence over the police and the prosecution in investigating cases involving senior public officials. For instance, the agency’s chief will be entitled to ask other law-enforcement and investigation authorities to hand over any case he or she chooses.
For these and other reasons, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party opposes the proposal itself. Other opposition parties such as the People’s Party and the Bareun Party agree with the proposal for the new agency in general, but have yet to give their full blessing.
The proposal should undergo open discussions at the National Assembly. The key point should be how to insulate the agency from the influence of the president. One good suggestion, as offered by the Bareun Party, could be the National Assembly -- instead of the president -- appointing its chief or at least requiring the nominee to go through a parliamentary confirmation vote.