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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on July 26)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:03 July 26, 2022

Don't try to control police
Interior ministry drawing fierce backlash from officers

The Yoon Suk-yeol government is under growing criticism over its plan to launch a police bureau under the Ministry of the Interior and Safety. On Monday, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min vowed to sternly punish police officials who declared their opposition to the plan during a weekend meeting. "Their act is tantamount to a coup in defiance of orders," Lee told reporters. Lee is blamed for going too far in preventing police from taking further action against what is seen as the ministry's bid to gain direct control of the nation's police force. He is even trying to block any discussions on the contentious issue.

On Sunday, the National Police Agency (NPA) discharged Ulsan Jungbu Police Superintendent Ryu Sam-yeong from his post for organizing the meeting. It is also considering taking punitive steps against 55 other police officials. This move has prompted a fierce backlash from within the police. Its intranets were replete with comments critical of NPA ranking officers with some even demanding Yoon Hee-keun, acting commissioner of the NPA, withdraw his nomination for the top position.

The conflict is escalating as lower-level officers plan to hold similar meetings. The rare collective move is not desirable at all, as it will stoke people's worries about public order and stability. Yet, the NPA cannot avoid criticism for punishing Ryu without due process. The punishment against him will only aggravate the situation, reminiscent of similar meetings of prosecutors who were against the previous Moon Jae-in government's prosecutorial reform which critics argued was aimed at taming the prosecution.

A group of prosecutors met several times to express their opposition to bills designed to strip the prosecution of its investigative power. But none of the participants were subject to punitive measures. Ryu told reporters he was attempting to convey the conference results to Yoon, but failed as he was notified of the punishment before he could. It is totally inappropriate to prevent the participants from expressing their opinions on crucial pending issues.

Ryu said the conference participants expressed support for any democratic control of the police if based on the principle of checks and balances. But they denounced the new bureau plan as a "historical regression" as it will allow the ministry to wield excessive power over the police, as seen under the past dictatorial regimes. For starters, it would be better for the ministry to allow an independent body to supervise the police in a move to ensure their neutrality and independence.

On Monday, Rep. Woo Sang-ho, interim leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), pledged a "head-on struggle against President Yoon's attempt to control the police directly." From September, the police will be empowered to investigate most criminal cases, except for corruption and economy-related crimes.

Reaching a social consensus over the issue is imperative. Police officers' voices should be heard carefully. Relevant parties should take time to fully discuss ways to ensure democratic control of the police while guaranteeing its political neutrality and independence.

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