Justice Minister Park Sang-ki and Public Administration and Safety Minister Kim Bu-gyeom on Thursday signed an agreement on reducing prosecutorial powers and rights as part of measures for reforming the prosecution. Although the agreement has to go through the National Assembly's legislation process, it certainly concludes decades-old rivalry between the prosecution and the police over investigative powers. Under current law, the prosecution monopolizes the powers to file indictment, to supervise investigation into any case, to directly investigate cases, and close them. The reform measures call for eliminating the prosecution's supervisory power and limit its direct investigations and its power to close cases.
However, the agreement falls short of being seen as completion of the investigative powers reform. It allows the prosecution to retain the right to seek warrants on grounds that abolishing it requires a constitutional revision. In most major criminal cases, it is necessary for investigators to seek search or arrest warrants. The prosecution can still control police investigation by accepting or rejecting police investigators' requests for seeking warrants. Even though the agreement calls for limiting the prosecution's direct investigations, most major cases of social or political significance are still left in the hands of the prosecution.
The measures would significantly increase the power of the police, by allowing the police to independently launch investigations in addition to the massive organization and information-gathering networks that do not compare to those of the prosecution. Most advanced nations give their police the investigative powers but divide the powers between the state police and local police. Under the autonomous police system being pilot tested in Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, the local police merely function as neighborhood patrol without investigative powers. The Presidential Committee on Autonomy and Decentralization should remember that expanding such a system nationwide would not prevent the national police from having too much power.
Prosecutors complain that the measures would make it difficult for them to control investigations, while the police resent that the prosecution retains most of the essential powers. From citizens' perspectives, it would be hard to see what differences the reform measures would make except that there would be fewer cases in which prosecutors investigate again what the police have investigated. The law enforcement agencies should not backtrack on the hard-earned reform because of their organizational turf war.
What matters to the public is not which agency has the investigative powers but whether they are politically neutral. Under a structure in which the president appoints the police chief and the prosecutor general, which agency has the investigative powers does not make any difference to the public. As was seen in the online opinion rigging scandal, neither the prosecution nor the police are free from political influences. When the National Assembly discusses the reform measures, it should also come up with measures to check the presidential power to name the heads of the police and the prosecution.