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The iron fist of a former Prosecutor General: The future of Korean politics

Kevin Lee discusses democracy in South Korea.

It has been more than half a year since the 2022 South Korean presidential elections were held. COVID-19, growing economic inequality, an unfair housing market, and gender issues all fueled the closest presidential race in Korean history, with the conservative People’s Party candidate, Yoon Suk Yeol, narrowly beating out Lee Jae-Myung of the Democratic Party by less than one percent. 

To some, it was a shocking turn of events; the People’s Party suffered a landslide defeat in 2017 following President Park Geun Hye’s impeachment. Then, they conceded an absolute majority to the Democratic Party in the 2020 legislative elections, winning only 103 seats out of a possible 300. The abuse of power and corruption from previous conservative administrations seemingly burnt all bridges with their voter base, and the party’s infighting leadership lacked concrete plans to regain their trust. 

However, their comeback came sooner than anyone had anticipated. The Democratic Party lost support from their younger voting bloc, mostly from men in their 20s dissatisfied with the party’s feminist policies. Despite the country’s recent “feminist renaissance”, many have resisted the cultural shift, instead radicalizing into anti-feminist groups through online forums and men’s rights movements. As a result, nearly 60% of men under the age of 30 voted for President Yoon’s explicitly anti-feminist platform, which included abolishing South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. 

Other factors, including an over-heating real estate bubble and the growing weariness of COVID-19-related government restrictions, contributed to the conservative party’s resurgence. Following an unusually competitive primary race, the polls indicated a near 50-50 race, with Yoon just slightly ahead by the end of February. A third-party conservative candidate, Ahn Chul Soo, dropped out and finally tipped the scales in favour of the current regime. 

The results of the 2022 elections have profound implications: cultural conservatism, a greater gender divide, and anti-labor politics following an extreme capitalist agenda. But most importantly, there is palpable fear surrounding the government’s push to expand the power of the prosecution service, and what that means for the average Korean citizen. 

Who is President Yoon? 

The recently elected President Yoon Suk Yeol is sometimes described as a political maverick: unlike most presidents, he lacks a political background. Indeed, he is the first South Korean president since President Chun Doo Hwan–a military president who seized power through a coup d’etat in the 1980s–who has never been elected as a member of the Korean national assembly. 

A career prosecutor, Yoon has spent 25 years in the prosecutor’s office. He rose to prominence after leading investigations into scandals of former conservative presidents Park Geun Hye and Lee Myung Bak, as well as Lee Jae Yong, the vice president of Samsung Electronics. He was thus appointed as the prosecutor-general for the Democratic Party administration after Park’s impeachment. 

However, the relationship between him and the Democratic Party quickly soured. His ambivalence to prosecution-related reforms by the government, as well as his decision to prosecute the then-Minister of Justice, Cho Guk, was condemned by the party. He was criticized for his overzealous prosecutorial tactics and for using his office for personal gain, interfering in investigations into his family members and close associates. Eventually, he resigned from office on March 4th, 2021, while gaining significant support from the conservative voter base. 

His story is reminiscent of many other “political mavericks” in recent years: Donald Trump is a notable example of another president from a non-traditional background, branded as anti-establishment to appeal to a more precariat, neoconservative demographic. Similarly, Yoon’s unorthodox naivete has often been optimistically interpreted as a “fresh change of pace”, despite evidence suggesting otherwise. 

Prosecution Services in South Korea

President Yoon’s history as a prosecutor-general is just as important as his lack of history as a public servant. 

Like in many other countries, Korean prosecutors are generally in charge of deciding the appropriate punishment for criminals. However, unlike other countries, they have a complete monopoly over both the investigatory and indictment processes. In particular, Korean prosecutors both command police-led investigations (a check-and-balance system against the police), and also have the power to lead investigations themselves with effectively no restraint. Additionally, they are solely in charge of directing and supervising arrest, seizure, and search warrants–while such responsibilities are usually shared between the police force and the prosecutor’s office in other OECD countries. 

In this sense, the current Korean prosecution service resembles its English counterpart before the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service in 1986; instead of having the same officers investigate and prosecute a case, the British government found it sensible to have the police investigate, while the CPS decides whether or not to prosecute in court. 

The most frightening aspect of this antiquated, all-powerful, and untouchable organisation is its military-esque mindset: under the “uniformity of prosecutor principle”, all prosecutors have to strictly obey a leadership pyramid centred around the prosecutor general. This could be the breeding ground for corruption and abuse. 

The prosecution service is the main target of lobbying efforts by business conglomerates: by targeting the right people, such businesses can easily worm their way out of corporate crime charges–from environmental pollution and tax fraud, to trade violations and price-fixing. More importantly, these bribery attempts are almost always never investigated, as the only organisation in charge of the investigatory processes is the prosecutor’s office itself. Despite receiving nearly 12,000 reports of prosecutor-related crimes in the past 5 years, only 14 prosecutors were ever indicted

Government of prosecutors, by the prosecutors, and for the prosecutors

So what does it mean to a former prosecutor-general turned president when faced with the challenges of criminal justice reform? 

President Yoon was adamant in his election promises that he will fully support the prosecutor’s service, even giving it further independence and power if elected. 

He first promised to sever the ties between prosecutors and the Minister of Justice; the Minister of Justice is the only non-prosecutor who has power over the prosecution service. Despite the existing technicality that the Minister of Justice can only monitor the prosecutor general–and therefore is usually limited in his influence over specific cases–Yoon’s promises attempt to further liberate and empower prosecutors. 

He then promised prosecutors independent budget and HR deliberations, as well as the power to investigate highly ranked public officials. His campaign drew the ire of civic groups, who compared his plans to an “empire for his prosecutor army”, but Yoon stood firm by his policies. 

In his current 6 month presidency, Yoon’s cabinet is comprised of 15 past prosecutors–many of whom also lack political experience–including the new Minister of Justice. His campaign promises have yet to come to fruition; the national assembly is still divided and stalling the legislative process, but it seems an inevitable end result. 

Conclusion: 

Despite recent movements centred around the systematic corruption of police forces around the world, Korea’s own issues of a rotting criminal justice system have gone largely unnoticed. Unlike police brutality, there isn’t black-and-white video evidence of wrongdoing or thousands of testimonies pointing toward systematic injustice. 

And so the problem festers on, hidden under layers of intentional obfuscation of responsibility. With the new regime only adding fuel to the fire, the general public cannot stand idly by: we must draw increased attention to political power abuse, mobilize against corruption, and most importantly, exercise our democratic rights to the fullest. 

Image credit: Daniel Bernard

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