Tension mounts between prosecution and Justice Ministry in South Korea
SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) - Tension has become thick between the prosecution and Justice Ministry, with embattled Justice Minister Cho Kuk pushing for an overhaul of the law enforcement agency.
Controversy surfaced Tuesday after the Justice Ministry’s senior officials were reported to have suggested a high-ranking official from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office form an investigation team independent of Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl. Yoon reportedly rejected the suggestion.
Amid criticism the ministry attempted to exercise influence over the prosecution, the ministry said it was only a personal exchange of ideas.
“As it is sensitive timing, everybody should be careful about what they say,” Cho said Wednesday.
Earlier this week, Moon appointed Cho, former presidential secretary for civil affairs, as justice minister despite fierce resistance from the opposition bloc and negative public sentiments toward him. Cho was the right person to complete the judiciary reform, Moon said.
The first order Cho gave as new justice minister on Tuesday was to form a separate team to support the reform of the prosecution, which has been seen as a move to speed up judicial reforms. He appointed a figure with no work experience in the prosecution to head the team. Curbing strong ties between the Justice Ministry and the prosecution has been on the judicial reform agenda.
The Moon administration has pushed to overhaul the prosecution, which has sole authority to open and close investigations and indict suspects, to curb its power. It seeks to hand over more investigative power to police and establish an independent body tasked with investigating high-ranking officials embroiled in corruption allegations.
As justice minister, he now has control over the Justice Ministry even as the prosecution investigates allegations surrounding his own family. It is the first time a family member of a sitting justice minister has come under a prosecution investigation.
Just before Moon’s appointment of Cho, the prosecution launched a sweeping probe into the allegations under the direct supervision of the prosecutor-general. In a rare move, prosecutors raided more than 20 locations and indicted Cho’s wife on forgery charges, which critics denounced as politically charged.
Cho said Tuesday he would not be briefed on the status of the investigation linked to his family.
At the center of the investigation is Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-shim, a professor at Dongyang University. She is suspected of having fabricated a certificate to help her daughter gain acceptance to a medical school. the prosecution has accelerated the probe into Cho’s family.
Hearings on whether to arrest those related to the private equity fund Cho’s family had invested in were held Wednesday, with the outcome expected later in the day or early Thursday.
Whether the two are arrested is expected to be critical to both prosecutors and Cho.
Pundits say the prosecution’s investigation into Cho’s family could lose steam once the arrest warrants were rejected in a situation where prosecutors were already facing criticism over unprecedentedly sweeping probe at a politically sensitive timing.
The CEO of private equity firm Co-Link Private Equity, surnamed Lee, as well as the head of local firm Wealth C&T, surnamed Choi, who received funding from Co-Link Private Equity, attended the hearing held at Seoul Central District Court on Wednesday morning.
They did not answer any questions from the army of reporters at the scene.
Lee, who operated a private equity fund in which Cho’s wife and children had invested about 1.4 billion won ($1.18 million), is suspected of having exaggerated the amount of the investment he received from Cho’s wife and children.
The private equity fund put its money mostly into Choi’s company. The company then reportedly won a series of projects and paid Cho’s wife for business advice. Cho was serving as senior secretary to the president for civil affairs at the time.
New allegations have surfaced that a relative of Cho pushed a witness at his parliamentary confirmation hearing to make false statements regarding operations of the private equity fund.
The prosecution is said to have secured a recording in which Cho’s nephew, who is suspected of having owned the operating firm of the private equity fund that Cho’s family invested in, asked witnesses not to appear or to lie at the hearing.
Part of the recording was made public by Rep. Yoo Min-bong of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.
Cho’s wife protested the revelation of the recording through a post on her Facebook, saying her defense rights are being severely violated.