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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Law & Order: Korea Corruption Investigation Office

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There’s democracy. There’s fascism. And then there’s Korean Demoscism – a blend of democracy and fascism that churns beneath dynamic Korea. At the center of Korea’s real life dramas is abuse of power enabled by social structures that favor authoritarianism in practice even though the public says it wants fairness.

In essence, Koreans desire fair authoritarianism as long as “I’m the authoritarian.” But Koreans also want the opposite: the next stage of democracy where structures balance power to create a fair society for all. But if they can’t have either, they slide into despair or demonic glee in sabotaging the mighty.

Example: In what’s turned into a soap opera, the ongoing saga to reform Korea’s tyrannical prosecution has the President, Justice Minister and Prosecutor General in the headlines again. If the Korean public stays focused on the main plot, it has a real chance to transform the country’s democracy. But if viewers get lost in the subplots again, they will let another chance to strengthen democracy slip from its grasp.

A helmeted army paratroops clubs democracy activist arrested during violent anti-government demonstrations in Gwangju, May 20, 1980. Up to 800 persons were arrested, and forces said two demonstrators died of injuries. (AP Photo)

What This Show is About

Reforming Korea’s justice system by reducing the stranglehold that the prosecution currently employs to the benefit of a corrupt elite. One of President Moon’s main campaign pledges included prosecution reform and it’s been railroaded by conservatives who employed a strategy of publicly destroying the reputations of the president’s appointees to carry out the job.

Why People Care

The current prosecution system literally is a textbook example of a system where the rich and powerful get away with anything. Networks are established through regional, alumni, family, friendship and professional ties. If you’re in, you can cover your ass. How? In order for any legal case to proceed, there has to be enough evidence. The prosecution has the sole power to compile evidence and control the final outcome of whether there’s enough evidence to prosecute.

Even if investigations were started by the police, the police have to hand it over to prosecutors. If you’re buddies with the prosecution, even if the police are certain you’re guilty, once they hand over the case, evidence mysteriously goes missing or is found to be too weak based on legal coordination with judges who are usually also in the prosecution club.

In other countries, the police have authority to investigate and compile the evidence. Then the prosecutors take care of indictments. In Korea, the prosecutors have it all.

Scandalous Highlight Episodes

The latest episode: The face of the reform opposition – the Chief Prosecutor himself – went back on the attack by focusing on the merit of the reform itself. He says it’s unconstitutional and would only create more corruption. But it’s a far cry from the episodes that led us here. Perhaps the opposition is trying a different tactic after all the mudslinging the past season.

August 2019: President Moon appointed Cho Kuk as justice minister in August 2019 to reform the prosecution office. In Korean politics, they don’t go after the issues, they go after your family. Cho was accused of pulling strings for his daughter to get into medical school. His wife was also indicted for falsifying documents to help her daughter’s medical school application, insider trading, embezzlement and withholding evidence. And guess who levied the charges and indictments? The prosecution office that Cho Kuk was trying to reform.

In the end, the court ruled that Cho’s wife was guilty of falsifying documents for her daughter and partially guilty of using insider information and false accounts to make investments into a private equity fund. But the uproar in the court of public opinion led Cho to resign in October 2019.

January 2020: President Moon appoints five-term lawmaker and former judge Choo Mi-ae as the new justice minister to have another go at prosecution reform. The battle seemed to take a breather as both sides focused on the April 2020 parliamentary elections and the coronavirus outbreak. The President’s liberal party won a sweeping majority and the administration found a mandate to continue its reform plans.

September 2020: The prosecution went after Justice Minister Choo on allegations that she abused her power to get her son excessive sick leave from his military duty. She was cleared of the charges. Is this when she started padding her files for retaliation?

October 2020: Justice Minister Choo says she will personally “oversee the investigation of the alleged lobbying by Lime Asset Management and the allegations linked to Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s family and aides.” Choo went on the offensive. But people got lost in this subplot over an investment fund called Lime, which was found guilty of defrauding retail investors.

November 2020: Justice Minister Choo drops a bomb on the chief prosecutor by releasing a list of alleged improprieties and relieving him of his duties. In particular, she accused Chief Prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl of compiling personal and professional intelligence on judges to assess whether they would be favorable to the prosecution. Choo even got the president’s support for a bit for the unprecedented move.

December 2020: Chief Prosecutor Yoon wins his lawsuit to have his job back. Justice Minister Choo said she wouldn’t appeal the ruling. The two are back in the ring for another fight.

Have they now exhausted their list of personal attacks? Perhaps they should all grow up and debate the mechanics of the reform rather than attack each other’s family members. Fixing a justice system that affects the entire nation is a big task. The public should be engaged on shaping its future democracy. We should know the pros and cons of option A vs. option B. Instead, we know way too much about the family matters of our public figures.

In any event, if recent history is any guide, the prosecution reeks of favoritism. After former prosecutor and Blue House aide Woo Byung-woo was arrested in connection to President Park’s impeachment scandal, Koreans were furious when they saw his investigators sucking up to him as their mentor in these photos.

This image hardly shows a man who is being held responsible for abusing Korea’s intelligence agency to spy on his political rivals. Many prosecutors owe their careers to him. That in itself isn’t reprehensible, but the absence of any structure to balance that conflict of interest is regrettable.

Former Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun sparked the #MeToo movement in Korea by reporting workplace sexual harrassment

Moreover, the prosecution has shown it will turn on its own if members break from the sanctity of the club. In 2018, Seo Ji-hyun claimed she was sexually harassed by a senior prosecutor at a funeral in 2010. She said she received retaliation as the victim when she was demoted to a remote office in 2015 while her abusers were promoted. Where would she be able to file a report? You’d think the police. But they’d have to hand the case straight over to the… prosecution office. Seo now works on gender equality at the justice ministry under Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae.

Injustice everywhere stems from imbalance of power. But particularly in Korea, it stings harder because it’s so much easier to abuse the weak. And no, it’s not because Koreans are worse people, it’s the system that allows Korea’s abusers freer access than the sociopaths in nations with more robust justice systems to dilute corruption.

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