What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
On May 24, the Ministry of Justice issued an advanced legislation notice regarding the establishment of an organization for verifying the qualifications of public officials. The new organization is to be headed by the minister of justice. This announcement came after President Yoon Suk-yeol decided to eliminate the position of senior secretary to the president for civil affairs, which had been considered a powerful position with influence over the appointment of government officials.
Until now, public official appointments have been made by presidential secretaries at Cheong Wa Dae, delegated by the minister of personnel management. But henceforth those rights and responsibilities will fall to the Ministry of Justice.
The announcement was met with criticism from those who are worried that this change will give the minister of justice too much power. One civic group that immediately issued a statement was Minbyun-Lawyers for a Democratic Society.
… According to the Government Organization Act, affairs regarding the personnel management of public officials are to be handled by the Ministry of Personnel Management. The Ministry of Justice is in charge of the prosecution service, criminal administration, human rights protection, immigration control, and other legal affairs, and personnel verification for public officials does not fall under any of these functions. Even if this function of personnel verification takes the form of consignment from the Ministry of Personnel Management to the Ministry of Justice, it is questionable whether a presidential decree will be enough to allow this change.
Without proper amendment of the Government Organization Act, the minister of justice taking part in a consignment beyond the scope of the work assigned to him may be acting illegally. In other words, his action may be bypassing the legal restrictions and infringing the legislative power of the National Assembly. It is also difficult for the Ministry of Justice to avoid the criticism that as just one administrative department it will control the personnel of other administrative departments. …
According to the amended bill for the relevant ordinance, the minister of justice will have the authority to verify personnel along with the chief presidential secretary, and therefore information on the candidates for public office will be shared between the Ministry of Justice and the Presidential Secretariat. In the previous governments, the Office of the Senior Secretary for Civil Affairs at Cheong Wa Dae conducted personnel verification through the police information function and did not hand related information over to the Ministry of Justice (Prosecution Service), and therefore such information was not used for direct investigation. However, the new measure will remove this partition.
In this case, there is a possibility that the Ministry of Justice, the Prosecution Service, and the Police Agency will become one, creating an extra-legal institution in charge of everything from collecting information to prosecuting offenses. It is self-evident that if the Ministry of Justice, which oversees prosecution offices across the country, obtains personnel information through the police, it will exert influence on all processes from the collection of information to investigation and prosecution. Moreover, considering that the efforts to remove prosecutors from the Ministry of Justice are regressing, the Ministry of Justice has become one with the prosecution service, and given that the police are also an investigative agency, it is possible that any cross-checking among the three organizations will utterly disappear.
In particular, in Article 53 (4) of the amended bill for the ordinance titled “The Ministry of Justice and Its Affiliated Organizations”, a new regulation was added that allows active-duty officers belonging to the Ministry of Defense, staff of the National Intelligence Service, and public officials belonging to the Board of Audit and Inspection to be “public officials assigned to the Ministry of Justice”. If, through the amendment of this ordinance, the minister of justice is to collect personnel information, policy information, and security information that is dispersed in the National Intelligence Service, the Ministry of Defense, and the Board of Audit and Inspection, the Ministry of Justice will become an institution that wields absolute power.
— Minbyun-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, May 25, 2022.
Kim Yong-min, a member of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly, also remarked:
It is illegal for the Ministry of Justice to conduct personnel verification for public officials. Doing so would make the Ministry of Justice the Ministry of Crime, the Ministry of Law Evasion, the Ministry of Law-Breaking, and the Ministry of Illegality.
— Kim Yong-min, National Assembly member for the Democratic Party of Korea, May 26, 2022.
However, the Ministry of Justice, as well as the People Power Party and the president, asserted that steps have been taken to guarantee independence to the organization that will oversee personnel verification of public officials. When asked about the criticism regarding the establishment of the organization under the Ministry of Justice, Yoon Suk-yeol answered:
The United States does it this way. The Presidential Secretariat should focus on policies and things like that. They shouldn’t slander anyone or dig for information. That’s why I got rid of the Office of Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs. You know the control tower for inspection or the old special inspection group? Organizations that used to gather information on the misconduct of public officials. We’re not going to do that, and the matter of inspection should be taken care of by an inspection agency, rather than the Presidential Secretariat acting as a control tower… And about collecting information on the misconduct or allegations of misconduct against candidates for public office? We won’t do that either. That is why the Presidential Secretariat should not collect such information itself but obtain it from an investigative agency. That way we can be objective. And data can be accumulated, so we’re doing it the American way.
— Yoon Suk-yeol, president of the Republic of Korea, May 27, 2022.
Unfortunately, his remarks were again received with criticism from the opposition parties.
The Democratic Party of Korea pointed out that it was illegal to dig for information on misconduct, so this should not be carried out by either the Office of President or the Ministry of Justice:
President Yoon Suk-yeol made it clear that he has no intention of accommodating the public’s concerns about the establishment of a personnel information management team under the Ministry of Justice, saying that the Office of the President should not dig for information on personnel or their misconduct.
President Yoon’s remarks indicate that the role of the Ministry of Justice’s personnel information management team will be to seek information on public officials and candidates as well as on their misconduct.
Seeking information about someone and their misconduct borders on illegal inspection. The personnel verification of public officials should be based on the information submitted by candidates, not indiscriminately collected or dug for.
I am very concerned about President Yoon Suk-yeol’s perception of personnel verification. It is horrifying, if he is saying that the Ministry of Justice, not the Office of the President, can conduct inspections disguised as personnel verification.
Prosecutors who have aligned with the former expert prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol, including Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, have taken control of not only the Prosecution Service but also the Office of the President and the Ministry of Justice. I would like to ask if he means to give Minister Han Dong-hoon the authority to dig up information and dirt on people.
I am very concerned about whether he is trying to revive the Office of Criminal Intelligence, which was previously the eyes and ears of the prosecutor general, as the eyes and ears of Minister of Justice Han Dong-hoon, who now has concentrated power.
What is he trying to achieve by giving such powerful authority, including the right to lead and control investigations and the right to perform personnel verification to “Little President” Han Dong-hoon?
President Yoon Seok-yeol, I ask you to immediately call off the establishment of the personnel information management team, which has been tainted with illegality and adverse effects.
— Kim Nam-guk, spokesperson for the Election Campaign Committee of the Democratic Party, May 27, 2022.
The Justice Party also issued a statement, specifically pointing out the difference between the personnel verification systems of the United States and South Korea.
The president expressed his position regarding the establishment of the Ministry of Justice’s personnel information management team.
In a word, he said we will do as the United States does.
However, this is not only a simplistic comparison, but also a bad comparison.
First of all, the United States is a federal republic. The powers of investigative and intelligence agencies, such as attorney generals and the police, are also distributed among the 50 state governments. The State Attorney and County Sheriff are elected by the vote, and are even under civil control.
There is no simple comparison with the system in Korea.
The US Attorney General (equivalent to the Justice Minister in Korea) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are also subject to congressional checks, as they have to receive congressional approval.
It is different from South Korea, where the president goes ahead with appointments without even taking into account the public hearing reports.
Moreover, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation is a de facto independent agency, although it falls under the Department of Justice.
The difference between the US FBI and Korea’s personnel information management team under the direct control of the Ministry of Justice is the difference between heaven and earth.
Above all, the entity that ultimately verifies public officials in the United States is the White House. The White House verifies public official candidates based on information obtained from the FBI, the Office of Government Ethics, the Internal Revenue Service, and the US Government Accountability Office.
This is completely different from the method of entrusting verification to a personnel information management team under the Ministry of Justice.
The president’s remarks today are intended to dispel criticism from citizens who are concerned about the power of the prosecution service, in which the former prosecutor-general president has appointed his former subordinate as the justice minister, taking it over through personnel appointments.
Through discussions in the National Assembly and improvement of the system through legislation, we urge the president to resolve the anxiety of citizens who worry that democracy will be threatened by the emergence of a special class that has not only been given excess authority but also gained a lot of power.
— Jang Tae-su, spokesperson for the Election Campaign Committee of the Justice Party, May 27, 2022.
The bill for amending the enforcement ordinance to establish a personnel information management team, which will verify the qualifications of high-ranking public official candidates was passed during the State Council meeting on May 31 and will most likely be launched as early as June 7. Time will tell whether the justice and equality that the Yoon administration has been asserting will be realized through such measures.