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Politics

South Korea lawmakers dismantle roadblock to prosecutorial reform

Top prosecutor's disciplinary hearing delayed amid fairness concerns

SEOUL -- South Korean lawmakers on Thursday pushed through legislation that will finally allow the creation of a new body to handle high-level corruption investigations, a centerpiece of the government's effort to curb the country's powerful prosecutors' office.

The Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials is now cleared to be set up as early as next month.

Meanwhile, a disciplinary committee convened by the Justice Ministry decided Thursday to postpone a hearing on whether to punish Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, aiming to address concerns from his legal team about the fairness of the process, and will meet again Tuesday.

The two developments illustrate the tug of war over one of the government's top priorities. President Moon Jae-in's progressive administration seeks to rein in prosecutors, whose sweeping powers to both investigate and prosecute have led to numerous arrests and indictments of former presidents. But critics worry that this opens the door to political influence over investigations of lawmakers and top government officials.

The National Assembly passed bill a year ago to create the new investigative office. But opposition-linked members of a committee to choose a chief for the new body stymied the process, preventing it from actually being set up. The bill passed Thursday scraps their veto power, allowing a chief to be picked and the office to be launched.

Conservative opposition lawmakers had filibustered the bill the day before, but the ruling Democratic Party, which holds a nearly two-thirds majority of seats, ultimately forced it through.

Moon welcomed this development as the fulfillment of a "long-cherished desire" and said he was profoundly moved to be able to keep a promise to the people. He called for the office to be up and running in early 2021.

The new office will be tasked with conducting probes into corruption involving the president, lawmakers and senior civil servants. Prosecutors will retain the power to bring charges against these officials, but the new office will have priority when it comes to investigations.

The change will in effect allow for the ruling party to hand-pick the head of the office, who could be a figure close to the administration. That would not only make it harder to conduct investigations that could be disadvantageous to the government, but also possibly lead to probes being launched at the government's behest.

Prosecutorial reform had been a goal of past progressive administrations, only to be stymied by resistance from the prosecutors' office. Though the drama over reform has contributed to a drop in Moon's approval rating into the 30s, the Democratic Party hopes that the bill passed Thursday will help unite its progressive base ahead of the next presidential election in March 2022.

Yoon, the prosecutor general, has continued to fight the reform effort.

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae suspended him in November over allegations of misconduct, including interference in investigations and inappropriate ties with the media, and reportedly seeks harsher punishments, including removal.

The seven-member disciplinary committee that met Thursday consists of the justice minister and deputy minister, along with two prosecutors and three legal professionals chosen by the minister. It weighed potential punishments including dismissal, suspension and pay reduction.

Yoon's legal representatives argued that it was illegal for Choo to put together the committee given that she was the one who requested it. The team's motion to have four members recuse themselves was rejected, but the committee agreed to a request to allow more witnesses to attend and adjourned until Tuesday.

Yoon filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court last week, arguing that the legislation governing the disciplinary process cannot guarantee its fairness. He is expected to seek an injunction if the disciplinary committee opts for a severe punishment, meaning that the court battle is likely to rage on for some time.

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