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[Newsmaker] Reshuffle of prosecutors draws backlash

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

The Justice Ministry’s latest decision to replace prosecutors involved in investigating President Moon Jae-in’s associates has drawn strong criticism from all opposition parties.

Following the first round of shakeup on Jan. 8 that ousted Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s closest aides from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, the ministry last Thursday reassigned senior prosecutors who led the probes into former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and people in the presidential office to provincial posts.

Calling the replacements the “first and second massacres,” the main opposition Liberty Korea Party lambasted the Moon administration for “trampling on the rule of law” and leading Korea onto the “path to dictatorship.”

Party leader Hwang Kyo-ahn said on Friday that his party will push for a special counsel investigation to stop the Moon administration from “incapacitating the prosecution and obstructing justice.”

“The Moon administration … is destroying the prosecution to inhibit investigations into corruption of those in power. Everything from the reshuffle of senior prosecutors to the restructuring of the prosecution was aimed at putting the prosecution in a vegetative state,” Hwang said in a statement.

The minor Bareunmirae Party said the first reshuffle “removed Prosecutor General Yoon’s limbs,” and the second “cut off the heads of the teams that went after those in power.”

“It is an obstruction of investigation under the pretext of a personnel shakeup. … Cheong Wa Dae and the government no longer deserve to talk about prosecutorial reform,” Bareunmirae Party spokesman Kang Shin-eop said Thursday.

Lawmakers of the minor New Conservative Party called the replacements an “unprecedentedly blatant obstruction of justice,” and accused the Moon administration of turning “prosecutorial reform into a means to cover up their irregularities and disrupt the judicial order.”

The New Alternative Party spokesman Kim Jeong-hyun said the administration “must bear in mind that the people are very sensitive about the prosecution’s political independence after Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae took office.”

The Justice Party spokesperson Kang Min-jin said there was a high chance the latest shakeup would affect ongoing investigations.

In a reshuffle of 759 senior and rank-and-file prosecutors set to take effect on Feb. 3, the ministry replaced three deputy heads of district prosecution offices who have investigated allegations that some Cheong Wa Dae officials meddled in the 2018 local elections by attempting to cover up a bribery scandal involving a former Busan vice mayor.

Senior prosecutors Shin Bong-soo and Song Kyung-ho at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, who led the probes into the suspected election-meddling by the presidential office and corruption allegations against Cho and his family, were transferred to head the local branch offices of Pyeongtaek and Yeoju in Gyeonggi Province, respectively.

Senior prosecutor Hong Seung-wook at the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office, who looked into Cheong Wa Dae’s alleged cover-up of a bribery case against Yoo Jae-soo before he became Busan’s vice mayor in 2018, was moved to head the local branch office of Cheonan in South Chungcheong Province.

Yang Seok-jo, a senior prosecutor at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office who recently lashed out at his new boss in public for attempting to influence a probe into Cho Kuk, was demoted to a position at the Daejeon High Prosecutors’ Office.

A survey conducted by a local pollster earlier this month showed that slightly more Koreans disapproved than approved of the Jan. 8 reshuffle of prosecutors, although this was within the margin of error.

In the survey of 502 adults nationwide conducted on Jan. 10 by Realmeter, 47 percent of respondents said they thought it was wrong, while 43.5 percent approved.

The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

In a survey conducted the following week by Realmeter, President Moon’s approval rating dropped to 45.3 percent, with 50.9 percent of respondents disapproving of his presidency, up 4.4 percentage points from the previous week.

The Justice Ministry and the prosecution have been at odds over a number of issues amid the Moon administration’s drive for a prosecutorial reform that focuses on dispersing the prosecution’s investigative power.

Last Thursday, Justice Minister Choo expressed an intent to order an internal probe into prosecutors who indicted Choi Kang-wook, a presidential secretary for public office discipline, for fabricating an internship certificate for former Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s son.

The team of prosecutors reportedly bypassed their boss Lee Seong-yun, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, as he refused to approve the indictment, and brought charges against Choi with instructions from Prosecutor General Yoon.

The ministry said it confirmed a need for an internal inquiry, claiming that cases involving high-level officials like this must be run by the chief of the district prosecutors’ office, and it would constitute a violation of law and protocol if such a requirement was not met.

(sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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