Justice minister orders suspension of top prosecutor from duty amid feud over reforms, investigations

November 24, 2020

 Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae on Tuesday suspended Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl from his duty, in an unprecedented move amid a feud over prosecution reforms and various investigations involving Yoon’s aide and family members.

“The ministry has been investigating various allegations against the top prosecutor and found out some serious misconduct,” the justice minister said during a briefing.

As reasons to bar him from his duty and seek disciplinary actions, the minister cited what she called an “improper” meeting with a media executive, the illegal inspection of judges involved in controversial cases, interference with the prosecution’s investigations to protect people close to him and damage to public trust in the political neutrality of the prosecution. She also cited his alleged leak of information to the press on the Supreme Prosecutors Office’s launch of an audit into his close aide involved in an alleged blackmail case.

She said that Yoon violated ethics by meeting with Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of JoongAng Holdings, the media group that owns local daily JoongAng Ilbo and cable channel JTBC, in November 2018, who could be an interested party in a case being probed by prosecutors. Yoon was the chief prosecutor at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office at that time. Choo didn’t offer further details.

She also said Yoon had impeded the ministry’s lawful probe by not responding to recent written investigation inquiries.

“As the justice minister, who has the utmost authority to oversee the prosecution, I decided that it is not tolerable to let him continue his duty,” Choo said.

Shortly after the surprise announcement, Yoon called it “unfair” and said he would “take legal action.”

“Reflecting on my past deeds, I have done nothing to be ashamed of as prosecutor general and have worked hard to protect the political neutrality of the prosecution,” Yoon said.

The file photos shows Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae (L) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl (R). (Yonhap)

The ongoing clash between the ministry and the prosecution largely began last year following controversial investigations into former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a key architect of Moon’s drive for prosecution reform, and his family.

Reform of the prosecution has been a key agenda of the Moon administration amid long-held public perception that the state prosecution has wielded excessive power without adequate checks and balances.

In recent months, clashes between Choo and Yoon have intensified over a series of investigations, including a financial fraud scheme at Lime Asset Management Co. and an alleged blackmail case in which prosecutor Han Dong-hoon, Yoon’s close aide, was involved.

The minister has, multiple times, accused Yoon of failing to sufficiently investigate the cases or of abusing his power, or of interfering in investigations to protect his associates and family members. Yoon’s wife and mother-in-law have been investigated by prosecutors in separate criminal cases.

President Moon Jae-in was briefed on the ministry’s decision shortly before the announcement but did not make a comment on it, according to Cheong Wa Dae.

Following the announcement, Rep. Lee Nak-yon, the chief of the ruling Democratic Party, said he was “shocked and disappointed” by the allegations raised against the top prosecutor. Lee urged Yoon to decide his position, apparently pressuring him to step down.

Rep. Joo Ho-young, the floor leader of the main opposition People Power Party, called Choo’s move an “abuse of power” and said the president should express his stance on the minister’s decision.