(Bloomberg) — South Korean President Moon Jae-in — swept into office on a vow to clean up government after his predecessor was ousted for graft — wanted a prosecutor who wouldn’t hesitate to go after the most powerful.
Problem is, Moon may have gotten what he wished for in Yoon Seok-youl.
Almost immediately after being appointed as the nation’s chief prosecutor in July, Yoon launched a series of probes that have rocked Moon’s two-year-old administration. The scandal has forced one justice minister to resign and helped push Moon’s approval rating to a record low — just as he girds for an April parliamentary election that will shape the second half of his term.
The investigations are only the latest in string of high-profile cases brought by Yoon, 58, over the years, including probes of two former presidents, a chief justice and the heads of Samsung Electronics Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. After then-President Park Geun-hye demoted Yoon, he joined the special prosecutor’s team whose findings laid the groundwork for her impeachment and removal.
“I’m not loyal to anyone,” he famously told lawmakers when asked about one such probe in 2013.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Yoon’s latest case involves a man whom Moon once predicted would make a “fantastic duo” with the chief prosecutor: Former Justice Minster Cho Kuk. Last month, Cho was forced to resign after just five weeks on the job amid investigations into whether members of his family inflated college admission applications and improperly benefited from investments in a private equity fund.
While Cho has denied wrongdoing and hasn’t been accused of any crimes, his wife and nephew have been indicted on various charges while his brother has been detained for questioning. Any expansion of Yoon’s probe to implicate him personally would pose problems for Moon, who decided to force through Cho’s appointment even after the investigations began. “I don’t know what allegations I’ll be charged with but it seems like the indictment against me has already been planned,” Cho wrote on his Facebook page late Monday.
“Moon’s presidency was empowered by high public expectations for clean government,” said Park Sung-min, head of MIN Consulting, a political consulting firm in Seoul. If Cho “faces additional allegations related to his duty as part of the prosecutor’s probe into his family, Moon and the ruling party will receive a megablow,” he said.
The investigations add a new worry for Moon on top of a slowing economy and a North Korean regime that has mocked his efforts to play a mediating role in nuclear talks with the U.S. The opposition Liberty Korea Party has drawn almost even with the ruling Democratic Party in some polls, raising the prospect that it could gain control of the National Assembly in April and stymie Moon’s agenda.
Moon’s office declined to comment Monday, referring to remarks he made in Yoon’s presence Friday praising the prosecutor’s progress toward “political neutrality.” Moon said it was important to establish a fair anti-corruption system that could endure after “Yoon leaves office and regardless of who replaces him.”
When announcing Yoon’s appointment, Moon praised him as “a man of integrity who’s not swayed by pressure from power.” Still, the Yonhap News Agency quoted a Moon administration official in September as saying that the investigation was on a scale that would only be necessary for “probing a conspiracy of a rebellion or completely mopping up the mafia.”
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office declined a request for comment. When asked about the investigation during a parliamentary hearing last month, Yoon vowed to follow the facts: “We prosecutors are not swayed by circumstances. We process the case only in accordance with principles and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
Yoon’s reputation for challenging authority goes back at least to his time in law school when he was forced to flee Seoul after participating in a mock trial in which he sought the death penalty against former coup-leader-turned-president Chun Doo-hwan. Back then, Yoon was known for belting out “Ave Maria” and “American Pie” in karaoke sessions, according to a person who has known him for more than 40 years.
Yoon became a prosecutor at the relatively late age of 33 after failing the now-defunct annual bar exam eight times. His age and penchant for making bold speeches against powerful elites earned him the nickname “Big Brother” among his fellow prosecutors.
In 2006, Yoon displayed characteristic bravado in seeking the arrest of Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo — one of the country’s most powerful corporate titans, who was later convicted and pardoned. Yoon is someone who wouldn’t let a friend get away with wrongdoing, according to the person who has known him for more than 40 years.
The investigations into Cho’s family have dealt a blow to Moon’s plans to overhaul a prosecutorial system that long been seen in South Korea as a tool for the country’s political elite to suppress dissent. While Moon had hoped Yoon would help push through legislation to weaken his own office, the chief prosecutor has publicly disagreed with a key part of the plan: delegating more investigative decisions to the police.
Shortly after Yoon took office, the welcome note on the Supreme Prosecutors’ website was revised to include a pledge to “always serve the public by sternly holding those who wield power accountable for their abuses and violence.”
In remarks that take on new significance in light of Yoon’s subsequent investigations, Moon urged the incoming chief prosecutor in July not to shy away from inquiries involving his own administration.
“I want you to be really strict, even should there be influence-peddling and corruption within my office, government or the ruling party,” he told Yoon. “Thankfully, unlike the past, there hasn’t been a big, contemptible corruption case within my office, government or the ruling party yet.”
(Adds comment from Cho in seventh paragraph.)
–With assistance from Jihye Lee.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kanga Kong in Seoul at [email protected]
For more articles like this, please visit us atbloomberg.com
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.