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Choo-Yoon proxy war plays out in politics

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae is surrounded by journalists as she heads for a meeting on the selection of the inaugural chief of a new investigative body at the National Assembly in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae is surrounded by journalists as she heads for a meeting on the selection of the inaugural chief of a new investigative body at the National Assembly in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
If there were ever any chance of a “cooperative parliament,” as President Moon Jae-in once hoped, the latest clash of two judicial titans -- Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl -- appears to have just blown it.

In her battle to reform the country’s powerful prosecution, or tame it as some would say, on Tuesday, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae suspended Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl from duty over alleged wrongdoing.

The unprecedented move sent shock waves through the political world, where Yoon has many allies. Members of the main opposition People Power Party erupted in anger on Wednesday and parliamentary proceedings, where a number of pending issues were to be handled, took the hit.

A sitting of the National Assembly Judiciary Committee was called off after opposition members insisted on calling in Yoon, saying they needed to hear from him directly.

The conservative opposition condemned the justice minister’s action as an attack not just on Yoon, but on the independence of the prosecutorial authority as a whole.

Floor Leader Rep. Joo Ho-young described Choo, a former judge and ruling party chief, as a “lawless” minister and demanded an explanation from President Moon, also calling for Choo’s dismissal. Choo could not have done such an unthinkable thing if the president had not had her back, the lawmaker said.

“President Moon is hiding behind Choo in this. If he doesn’t like what Yoon’s doing, he should just dismiss him,” Rep. Joo said.

Moon’s office said Tuesday that the president was briefed in advance about the justice minister’s disciplinary action against Yoon, but did not offer any comment.

“The president saying nothing means ‘go ahead,’” said right-wing politician Yoo Seong-min, who vied for the presidency with Moon in the 2017 election. “Moon just didn‘t want to be responsible. How cowardly.”

Other conservative politicians made similar comments, condemning the justice minister and urging the president to fire her.

Moon appointed both Choo and Yoon with the goal of reinventing the country’s judiciary, but they have clashed over a host of issues over the past few months, including reform plans and high-profile investigations.

In the process, Yoon, with no work experience outside the prosecution and no party affiliation, has emerged as a potential flag bearer for the main opposition in the 2022 presidential election.

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea came to Choo’s defense.

Party Chair Rep. Lee Nak-yon made his stance very clear by calling for a parliamentary investigation into Yoon’s alleged wrongdoings.

“The allegations revealed by the Justice Ministry are shocking,” Rep. Lee said during a meeting of the party’s Supreme Council. “I ask the party to consider a parliamentary probe.”

He also called on the Justice Ministry to get to the bottom of the suspicions surrounding the top prosecutor and swiftly proceed with follow-up measures. As for Yoon, the politician said it would be best for him and for the future of the prosecution if he decided on a course of action soon.

Upon making the bombshell announcement Tuesday, Choo said Yoon had violated ethical standards by meeting with media executives in private settings, leaking information to the press and interfering with investigations to protect people close to him. Yoon denied any wrongdoing and said he would take legal action to keep his job.

By Lee Sun-young  (milaya@heraldcorp.com)
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