South Korea’s Two Main Political Parties Clash Over Controversial Prosecution Reform

Outgoing party makes final push . . .

Last week, the Democratic Party (DP), one of South Korea’s two main political parties, announced it would introduce a bill to strip the Public Prosecutor’s Office of its remaining investigative authority. With the right to both investigate and indict, South Korean prosecutors hold considerable power, but they have been accused of abusing it in favour of elite interests. The DP is determined to use its majority in the National Assembly to push ahead with the reform before the end of President Moon Jae-in’s term in early May. His successor, Yoon Seok-yeol of the conservative opposition party, is expected to veto the bill once he assumes office. Conservative politicians and legal experts have questioned the constitutionality of the proposal.

An ambition years in the making . . .

Prosecution reform has been part of President Moon’s agenda since he came to power in 2017. In recent years, the DP introduced other bills to distribute some prosecutorial powers to other government agencies. But powerful prosecutors, including then Prosecutor General (and now president-elect) Yoon Seok-yeol, resisted these changes and launched an investigation into alleged corruption by Moon’s former Justice Minister, Cho Kuk, who was in charge of overseeing the prosecution reform. The so-called ‘Cho Kuk incident’ divided the Korean public and led to bitter clashes between Cho’s successor and Yoon. The latter’s suspension due to alleged legal misconduct by the DP led to a surge in Yoon’s popularity among conservatives and helped pave the way for his presidency.

Justice or political retaliation?

While the DP’s latest reform proposal is in line with its long-standing goal of curbing excessive prosecutorial powers, some accuse the party of rushing ahead to prevent its members, including recently defeated presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung and other Moon allies, from being investigated for alleged corruption. The Prosecution Office has been at the centre of many politically-motivated investigations of former presidents, both conservative and progressive. Yoon’s nomination of one of his closest confidants, Han Dong-hoon, as Justice Minister may signal that he intends to move quickly to launch a probe into the Moon administration. Han is known for taking on some of the most high-profile criminal investigation cases against powerful politicians and businesspeople in South Korea.