National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug proposed a mediation plan to reduce the range of the prosecution’s right to directly investigate from the current six crimes to two fields – corruption and economic crimes – and deprive prosecutors of the right to investigate after an investigative office for serious crime is launched. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the main opposition People Power Party signed an agreement with eight clauses included in it to process related bills late this month as per the National Assembly speaker’s proposal. It took around half a month for political leaders on both sides to resolve conflict over the bill to limit the prosecution’s right to investigate.
According to the agreement, the prosecution’s right to investigate will first be reduced sharply and abolished completely later. Starting from September, prosecutors will only be allowed to directly engage in investigations into cases involving corruption and economic irregularities. Later next year when the serious crime agency will open to fill in the gap, the prosecution will turn from an investigator to an organization in charge of formal accusation. The original bill proposed by the ruling party deprives the prosecution of the right to investigate crimes of all types starting from August. With the agreement signed by the ruling and the main opposition party, prosecutors can still investigate corruption and economic matters for the next one and a half to two years until the launch of the serious crime agency.
Before September starts, prosecutors may have to complete investigations into violations of the Public Official Election Act such as allegations of Cheong Wa Dae’s influence over the Ulsan mayoral election and government officials’ abuse of authority such as the alleged blacklist of the Ministry of Trade, industry and Energy. As such, the prosecution cannot help paying considerable attention to deciding whether to look into serious corruption cases or corporate irregularities, which normally require investigations to last six months to more than a year.
Accusers of the six major crimes under the prosecution’s investigative jurisdiction are normally the socially elite including political leaders while their victims are ordinary citizens. At a critical turning point of the criminal justice system, all the National Assembly members should put their heads together while laws go through revision so that there will not be any vacuum in investigative capabilities or responses to corruption and irregularities. Election offenses, the prescription for public prosecution for which only lasts six months, have traditionally been taken care of jointly by the police and the prosecution. Starting from the June 1 elections, the police alone will have a sole responsibility for investigating any illegal act, only increasing concerns about gaps in capabilities at the working level.
Prosecution leadership including Prosecutor General Kim Oh-soo stepped down in defiance of the plan of arbitration, arguing that it involves critical procedural errors that arise from the timeline set up to implement the change. It is deeply regrettable that both the main parties pushed forward with a behind-the-scenes deal on the bill to limit the prosecution from investigations without listening to the relevant agency just as the law concerning the senior civil servant corruption investigation unit was processed unilaterally just a year ago. The National Assembly will have to make sure in the revision process to ensure checks and balances between investigative organizations, for example, by finding ways to control the police’s authority that will only grow bigger as lawyers have demanded. In this context, there should be ongoing discussion about how to achieve fairness across all other investigators including the prosecution.