The Korea Herald


Controversy brews over shakeup of prosecutors amid probe of first lady

Opposition denounces Yoon's reshuffle as attempt to hinder ongoing investigation

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : May 14, 2024 - 15:56

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Prosecutor General Lee One-seok talks to reporters in front of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Tuesday. (Yonhap) Prosecutor General Lee One-seok talks to reporters in front of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

The latest surprise reshuffle of senior prosecutors announced by the Yoon Suk Yeol administration sparked fierce debate among the main rival parties Tuesday with the opposition calling the move an attempt to hinder the ongoing probe into the luxury Dior bag scandal involving first lady Kim Keon Hee.

On Monday, the Justice Ministry named Lee Chang-soo, head of the Jeonju District Prosecutors’ Office, who is viewed as a close aide to Yoon, as the new chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. Lee will officially replace the current chief of the Seoul office, Song Kyung-ho, on Thursday, who had led the high-profile investigation into Yoon's wife launched earlier this month. All four deputy chief prosecutors under Song were relocated to other positions as well in the shakeup that involved a total of 39 people.

Nodding towards the brewing controversy, Prosecutor General Lee One-seok told reporters early Tuesday that the prosecution will continue to carry out the investigation based only on the existing evidence and legal principles, but remained silent when asked if the presidential office had discussed the reshuffle sufficiently with him beforehand.

“The personnel reshuffle is a personnel reshuffle, and the investigation is an investigation,” Lee told reporters as he entered the Supreme Prosecutors Office in southern Seoul.

"No matter who leads the investigations, I believe the prosecution will continue to investigate according to the legal principles and existing evidence and consider nothing else," he added, in his first remark following the shakeup.

But on the question of whether the presidential office had reached out to the prosecution for sufficient discussion about the shakeup beforehand, Lee remained silent for seven seconds before answering, “I will not comment on this matter further.” Lee refused to answer other questions regarding whether he knew about the scale and timing of the shake-up and the reported conflict between the presidential office and the prosecution.

Main opposition Democratic Party of Korea Floor Leader Park Chan-dae denounced the reshuffle as an attempt to create a “bulletproof” shield for the first lady during the probe.

“Lee Chang-soo, chief of the Jeonju District Prosecutors’ Office, is a well-known aide of Yoon who stands in the front line of the (current) administration and attempts to suppress the main opposition,” Park said during an intra-party leadership meeting held Tuesday.

Park also pointed out that Lee Chang-soo led the investigation into the allegations that the current main opposition party leader Lee Jae-myung took bribes in the name of corporate sponsorship of Seongnam's football club during his term as the city's mayor, around 2015. The police rejected the case on the basis of insufficient evidence in 2021.

“It is a signal that the (Yoon administration) plans to strengthen their grip on the prosecution and provide a bulletproof (shield for the first lady),” Park explained.

The ruling People Power Party shot back at the main opposition’s claims.

Ruling party Rep. Lee Chul-gyu said it would be “systematically impossible” for the ongoing probe into the first lady to “be halted or distorted” because a prosecutor leading the investigation has changed, in an MBC radio interview Tuesday.

Rep. Lee Chul-gyu’s remarks are in line with the statement released by the ruling party late Monday, defending the reshuffle as merely a move needed to fill vacancies in high-level positions within the prosecution.

“The personnel reshuffle involving senior prosecutors was carried out based on the organization’s demand for certain positions,” the party’s spokesperson Kim Min-soo said in a statement.

“(The Democratic Party) is making unreasonable criticisms of the prosecution. We call for the Democratic Party to stop its attempts to abuse the existing legal risks (against the first lady), to paint the prosecution as evil and rattle the judicial system.”

The reshuffle was announced the same day that the prosecution summoned and grilled for 12 hours Korean American pastor Choi Jae-young, who is accused of using a spy cam to film himself gifting a luxury Dior handbag valued at 3 million won ($2,210) to Kim Keon Hee in September 2022 -- 11 days after the probe was launched. Choi is charged with violation of the anti-graft law, trespassing and obstruction of official duties.

Prosecutors launched a probe into the first lady as the Democratic Party railroaded an updated version of the special bill mandating a special counsel investigation into the suspicions that Kim Keon Hee violated the nation’s Improper Solicitation and Graft Act. The law forbids public officials and their spouses from receiving gifts valued at more than 1 million won at a time or a total of 3 million won in a single year from the same person.

While the Democratic Party plans to pass the bill at an upcoming plenary session of the opposition-led National Assembly, Yoon hinted at exercising his veto power if such a move is made in a press conference marking his first two years in office held last week. Yoon had already vetoed the first version of the bill in January.