Independence of prosecution key to success
Justice Minister Cho Kuk announced a blueprint for prosecution reform Tuesday, one month after taking the helm of the Ministry of Justice. The key points of the reform are to prevent the law enforcement agency from abusing its authority and to protect the human rights of criminal suspects.
For this, the ministry plans to reduce the prosecution's "excessive" power to conduct direct investigations into criminal cases. Thus the agency is required to cede much of its investigative rights to police. The Moon Jae-in government and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) have already presented a fast-track bill to readjust the investigative power between the prosecution and police.
In order to better protect human rights, Minister Cho vowed to ban prosecutors from publicly disclosing details about charges to be brought against suspects. Prosecutors will also be banned from questioning suspects at night.
Also drawing attention is a step to shut down most of special investigation departments, except for three of them, including one at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office. Those departments dealing with high-profile corruption cases have been under criticism for abusing and misusing prosecutorial authority.
Yet some critics point out that the reform blueprint falls short of ensuring the prosecution's independence from political power. If the government fails to guarantee the agency's independence, the entire reform package may backfire. It might not prevent the prosecution from serving as the "handmaiden" of political power.
Minister Cho unveiled a plan to strengthen the justice ministry's right to supervise the prosecution. Of course, there is a growing need for the ministry to conduct direct inspections of the agency to ensure the integrity and discipline of prosecutors and prevent their possible entanglement in corruption and other wrongdoings.
But the ministry's direct inspections of the prosecution and its members could raise concerns about the government's attempts to expand its control over the agency. Currently having the right to personnel management and budget for the prosecution, the ministry might risk exercising too great power. So the ministry should be careful in expanding its supervisory rights over the prosecution.
The nation should no longer delay prosecution reform to establish the rule of law firmly. It should not be affected by the ongoing investigation of Minister Cho who was appointed last month despite mounting corruption allegations against him and his family. Prosecution reform is one thing and the investigation is another.
The presidential office and the government party should refrain from taming the prosecution in a bid to save Cho from any potential criminal charges. They must not take advantage of massive candlelit rallies in support of Cho for political gain. They should not try to influence the prosecution over its investigation into the justice minister.
The conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and other minor parties must also refrain from scuttling the liberal government's prosecution reform by accusing it of trying to protect Cho. Instead of taking to the streets in protest, the LKP chief and members need to return to the National Assembly to discuss how to reform the prosecution and deliver on other pending bills aimed at improving the livelihoods of the people.
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