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(EDITORIAL from Korea JoongAng Daily on Nov. 18)

All News 07:14 November 18, 2021

Neutrality in doubt

300 days have passed since the new Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) launched. But its performance has been utterly shabby as evidenced by a critical lack of concrete achievements and a deepening controversy over its political biases.

In his inaugural speech on January 21, Kim Jin-wook, head of the CIO, pledged to maintain the political neutrality of the new law enforcement agency by investigating corruption among high-level government officials in a fair way.

Many wonder about the sincerity of his commitment. First of all, the CIO has dealt with 23 cases so far, but only finished its investigation of one. The CIO did recommend the prosecution indict Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon for alleged favoritism in recruiting, but did not indict anyone on its own. It requested arrest warrants for prosecutors suspected of having asked the opposition People Power Party (PPP) to file criminal complaints against the ruling Democratic Party (DP) on their behalf, but the court rejected its request.

Such a poor performance only deepens public doubt about the real role of the body, which spends nearly 10 billion won ($8.5 million) a year on 25 prosecutors, 40 investigators and 20 administrative staffers. The CIO is reportedly lobbying hard to get 18.1 billion won for its operations next year.

Despite public concerns about its political independence, the way the CIO behaved over the past is quite disappointing. Yeo Woon-kook, a former judge and deputy head of the office, is even scheduled to have a dinner with Rep. Park Sung-joon — a co-spokesperson for the election campaign committee of DP presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung — which raises strong doubt over a possible deal with the DP over the handling of the case of criminal complaints. Could the CIO be considered politically neutral under such circumstances?

That's not all. The CIO is suspected of seizing the forensic results of the public smartphone of a spokesperson of the Supreme Prosecutors' Office to look into her conservations with reporters about sensitive cases. That raises questions about the CIO's respect for the freedom of the press.

On the 100th day after taking office, Kim said the CIO will "experience difficulties down the road because it has taken an uncharted path." Without a determination to protect the integrity of the CIO, it can vanish if the government is changed in March. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

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