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Politics

South Korea clips powers of police, prosecutors and spies

President Moon moves to fulfill a promise to rein in security agencies

South Korea's government is taking steps to reform the prosecution, intelligence and police services, which President Moon Jae-in says have been meddling in politics.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- The South Korean government plans to reform the country's prosecution, intelligence and police services, a step toward realizing President Moon Jae-in's election pledges to curtail abuse of power by these agencies, which he says have been meddling in politics.

Senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, Cho Kuk, in a recent news conference said the Prosecutors' Office will lose much of its power of investigation, including that to carry out primary investigations in most cases. This will be handed over to the police. Prosecutors will be involved in investigations only indirectly, except in specific cases with economic implications, for instance.

Cho said one of the objectives of the reforms was to "completely root out social evils," such as the abuse of power, and to "turn the agencies into those that will only serve the people."

He said wrongdoings by the prosecution, the police and the National Intelligence Service, the spy agency, were the reasons people held candlelight vigils in 2016, and why the previous president, Park Guen-hye, was ultimately impeached in 2017.

He said a special body will be set up to independently handle investigations and indictments of high-ranking officials suspected of corruption, and prosecutors will lose their exclusive rights to file formal charges in these cases.

The NIS will be renamed and will lose its authority over anti-communism investigations, which will be passed to a new office at the police agency. The NIS will focus instead on North Korean and other external threats.

The reduction of NIS powers will yield greater power to the National Police Agency, which will be divided into investigative and general functions. Its unit for anti-communist investigations will play a greater role.

Provincial police agencies, however, will be placed under the control of local authorities to keep them from gaining too much power.

The reforms were announced on the 31st anniversary of the death of Park Jong-chul, a Seoul National University student and democracy activist under torture by security forces. A movie inspired by the incident, "1987: When the Day Comes," released in December has been making the rounds of the country's movie-goers.

Referring to the film, Cho said the three government agencies conspired to cover up the truth three decades ago. The agencies "worked on the opposite side of the people," he said.

The NIS meddled in 2012 presidential election by posting hundreds of thousands of postings supporting Park Geun-hye, then candidate of the Saenuri Party, and criticizing Moon who was candidate of the Democratic Party of Korea in the internet portals.

The spy agency is also suspected of misusing its "special mission funds" worth billions won to influence the power elites including former presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak during their terms. The funds with annual budget of 500 billion won are exempted from accounting audit by law to help them use the money for their "special missions."

President Moon showed his strong will to manage the prosecution's uncontrolled power during his campaign last year. He stressed that it is uncommon that the prosecutors' office has both rights to investigate and indict suspects in other countries, arguing that it should be reformed.

Nikkei staff writer Kim Jaewon in Seoul contributed to this story.

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