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[Editorial] Reform with clean hands

Inappropriate for justice minister to announce plans to reform prosecution investigating his family

Justice Minister Cho Kuk has unveiled prosecution reform plans, but it is questionable if it was appropriate for him to announce such plans in the middle of investigations into corruption suspicions surrounding his family.

Under the plans, the kinds of cases the prosecution can investigate directly on its own judgment will be reduced, public summoning and disclosure of allegations to news media will be banned, questioning at the prosecution office will be limited to eight hours and late-night questioning will be prohibited in principle.

Special investigation departments that probe highly intelligent crimes such as power-related corruption and chaebol economic crimes will be downsized and focused within only three district prosecutors’ offices, including the nation’s largest, Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.

The ministry’s inspection of prosecutors will be strengthened.

Most of the plans have direct and indirect influences on investigation.

The plan to weaken special investigation is self-contradictory. As senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, Cho said nothing about those departments becoming bigger to dig up dirt as much as possible from previous governments and courts under President Moon Jae-in’s drive to root out corruptions of the past regimes.

Then as justice minister, Cho vows to minify the organization of elite prosecutors who are currently probing allegations related to his family.

The same is true of the plan to ban suspects from being summoned in public and prosecutors from briefing reporters on suspicions and investigations in progress. When Moon accelerated his signature anti-evils campaign, the prosecution revealed suspicions in detail and summoned suspects publicly. They stood in the photo zone for news media shortly before entering the prosecutors’ office.

The ministry cites human rights, but one cannot but wonder why these rights become relevant now, not then.

The ministry justified the plan to strengthen its inspection of the prosecution by noting the likelihood of prosecutors covering up for one another. On the other hand, the plan arouses concerns about the possibility of the ministry intervening in investigations by pressuring prosecutors through inspection.

Limiting a questioning session at the prosecutors’ office to eight hours also raises concerns that it may take away momentum from investigation.

Whether it was appropriate for Cho to announce the plans directly is a moot point. Many of them could directly influence the ongoing investigations into his family.

In the afternoon of Tuesday when Cho outlined the plans to reporters, his wife, Chung Kyung-shim, was being questioned by prosecutors for a third time. She was summoned in secret. His younger brother, suspected of taking bribes, was awaiting the court’s ruling on the prosecution’s request for his arrest. The court rejected the request despite having earlier allowed suspected bribe-givers to be arrested. The justice minister himself may undergo questionings as a suspect.

From a commonsense standpoint, it is less convincing for such a person to mention prosecution reform and to change investigation rules. Most of the reform plans are about control over the prosecution. Steps to strengthen the independence of its investigations are nowhere to be found.

The approval rating for Moon’s administration recently stood at 32.4 percent, according to a Hankook Research poll conducted Sept. 26 to Oct. 2. The figure is the lowest in his approximately 2 1/2-year presidency, though experts question a simple comparison with results of other polls. The disapproval rating accounted for 49.3 percent. The ratings likely reflect popular evaluation of Moon’s appointment of Cho as justice minister and the prosecution’s investigation into his family.

If the Cho issue is protracted, conflicts between his supporters and opponents will escalate. It is right for Cho to stop using his ministerial post to shield his family under the pretext of reform. He should resign and defend himself in court along with his family as an ordinary citizen.

It is unfair for a person whose family is being investigated by the prosecution to reform it. What is the convincing basis of the argument that only Cho -- in the entire nation -- is qualified to reform the prosecution despite a pile of suspicions? Reform must be done with clean hands.