Within the last two weeks, a series of high-level developments in South Korea have provided disquieting indications that the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is intent on punishing Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and other prosecutors who have taken on corruption investigations of South Korean officials, and on carrying out a program of reducing the powers of police and prosecutors to investigate corruption:
- January 1:
- In a New Year’s message, President Moon declared that “no institutional authority exists above the people,” stating that he would “not stop pursuing legal and institutional reforms until institutions of authority are trusted by the people.” He also stated that he “hope[s] that institutions of authority will lead the way in reforming themselves,” and that he “will also do everything in [his] power according to the Constitution as a President elected by the people.”
- Subsequently, an unnamed senior official in the “Blue House” (the executive office of the President) explained that President Moon is “saying that he will be exercising presidential authority, including appointment powers, in the event that prosecutors fail to reform themselves and obstruct the senior official investigation agency [that the South Korean National Assembly recently approved] or the changes to the prosecutors’ and police’s investigation powers.” Another official, when asked whether President Moon’s statement about “doing everything in his power according to the Constitution” meant that the President would be exercising appointment authority, replied, “He’s not limiting it [to that].”
- President Moon also approved the appointment of Choo Mi-ae as Minister of Justice. In a subsequent conversation, President Moon reportedly told Minister Choo, “With the legal regulations stipulating that the Minister of Justice is the final oversight authority for prosecutorial duties, I hope that you will be appropriately directing prosecutorial reform efforts in the spirit of those regulations.” Minister Choo herself stated that “[p]rosecutors hold authority for investigations and indictments, and they do not win trust when they just poke away to get the result they want while ignoring human rights. The role of the prosecutors’ is to accurately assess the crime and punish it duly while respecting human rights.” Her remarks reportedly referred to alleged “dirt-digging” tactics that the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in its investigation of former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk, formerly a close aide to President Moon, and his family and acquaintances in 2019.
- January 8:
- The South Korean Ministry of Justice announced the appointments of 32 officials, including the reassignment of three prosecutors who had been investigating scandals involving President Moon’s aides. Two of those aides, according to The Economist, were assigned to locations that are “traditional place[s] of banishment.”
- January 9:
- The office of South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon issued a statement indicating that it had told Minister Choo “that it was ‘regrettable Yoon declined the justice minister’s request to propose opinions’ for the appointments,” and that Minister Choo should “make a right judgment call and come up with a needed step.”
- At a parliamentary session, Minister Choo reportedly blamed Prosecutor General Yoon “for forcing her hand by not submitting a reorganization plan for his department that she said she requested,” adding that he “disobeyed my order to make reassignment proposals.”
- Bloomberg also reported that a press camera captured an image of Minister Choo’s text messages, showing “that she was asking her ministry to look up punishment law clauses because she wants to exercise her authority as the supervisor. She didn’t identify who she wants to punish.”
- The Prosecutor General’s office reportedly “sent prosecutors to a presidential committee overseeing national development . . . to search for evidence relating to alleged election interference.”
- January 10:
- A Presidential spokeswoman said that Prosecutor General Yoon had sent investigators to the President’s office to request “crime-relevant materials,” but that the Blue House “rejected the request.”
- January 12:
- South Korean television channel Channel A reported that an unidentified government official stated that President Moon “wants to punish” the Prosecutor General “for disobedience.” The official also said that Prosecutor General Yoon “should be held ‘accountable for his wrongdoing’,” and that “We’re currently reviewing which law clauses can be applied to his case.”
- January 14:
- At his New Year’s press conference, according to Bloomberg, President Moon “faced a barrage of questions about purges of prosecutors.” He defended the decision to reassign the three prosecutors, and “deflected questions” about whether Prosecutor General Yoon still had his confidence. He also asserted that “[t]he people are demanding reform in the prosecution because they feel it is acting on authority that exceeds the law . . . . The people applaud the prosecutors’ investigation, but in the process they see cases of uncontrolled investigative rights or publicizing the facts of suspected crimes that lead to media manipulation.” According to the Yonhap News Agency, President Moon also “stressed that his administration’s prosecution reform drive is not related to ongoing investigations into high-profile scandals” involving current and former officials in his administration, or to the reassignment of the prosecutors.
Note: While President Moon has characterized his administration’s recent actions as part of his “legal and institutional reforms,” they can also be viewed as a systematic effort to weaken the independence and authority of prosecutors whose corruption prosecutions have embarrassed the South Korean government. These developments also come at a critical time for President Moon’s ruling party, the Democratic Party, which will be facing parliamentary elections in April 2020. Any electoral setback, as Bloomberg reported, would weaken President Moon’s hand.
For these reasons, risk and compliance teams in companies doing business in South Korea should closely monitor developments with the Prosecutor General and the “reform” legislation for which President Moon has been pressing.