Han Myong-suk was the indisputable symbol of the feminist movement on the left side of politics in this country. A daughter of a war refugee family from North Korea, she started as a student activist at Ewha Womans University, joined a Christian pro-democracy movement and then turned to leftist politics under the influence of the man she married.
Her political career that took her to the titles of the inaugural minister of what is now the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, the minister of environment and the only female prime minister in the history of this republic hit rock-bottom when she was sent to prison in 2015, convicted of accepting illegal political funds.
Adversity came early in her dramatic life when her husband, a college instructor, was arrested six months after their marriage in 1967 and served 13 years in jail as a security law violator until the couple was reunited in 1981. By then she too had served 2 1/2 years on a charge of harboring subversive ideology.
Returning from studies in Japan and the United States late in the 1990s, Han was recruited by Kim Dae-jung to earn a proportional representation seat in the National Assembly. During the leftist rule of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, her stature grew in the party, legislature and the Cabinet, gaining in popularity and reverence beyond gender. But, after the rightists’ return to power in 2008, charges of past graft dogged her until finally she was imprisoned in 2015 at the age of 71.
When she was freed after serving two years in jail, her former colleagues, now in positions of power with the Moon Jae-in government, gave her a rousing welcome with not too silent a vow to restore her honor by whatever means possible. In their minds, Han suffered political persecution because of her symbolic leadership in leftist society, such as presiding over the state funeral of Roh Moo-hyun after his suicide in 2009.
The initial prosecution accusation that she received $50,000 from a businessman in her prime minister’s official residence in 2006 was dismissed over three levels of trials for lack of evidence. The subsequent charge of accepting 900 million won ($800,000) in illegal political contributions was partly accepted by the Supreme Court despite her claim of innocence. The top court saw the smoking gun in a 100 million-won check issued by her contributor and used by Han’s sister.
Cho Kuk, Choo Mi-ae and Park Beom-kye, the justice ministers in succession in the Moon administration, assumed the mission of exonerating Han Myong-suk, as it had added importance at a time when ousted female President Park Geun-hye faces heavy punishment for corruption. Inconsistent witness testimonies in Han’s trial provided the grounds for the objectors to claim foul play in the course of the investigation and indictment.
The crusade for Han could use the bandwagon of “prosecution reform” -- the drive to rid the main law enforcement organization of power abuse and corruption -- as a bureaucratic consequence of the “candlelight revolution.” The Moon government also conducted a sweeping restructuring of the criminal investigation system, involving the prosecution, the national police and the state intelligence agency.
When Choo Mi-ae, as justice minister, asked Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl to start an inquiry of prosecutors who had handled Han’s case, Yoon assigned a team of senior prosecutors to see if there were “coercion or enticement” of witnesses to obtain testimonies supporting the charges. The task force concluded that there were no clues to induced perjury.
That conclusion came at the height of the Choo-Yoon contest of power which put the prosecution organization into an unprecedented chaos. Choo in four rounds of reshuffles of the nation’s 2,000 prosecutors virtually classified them into two groups, one on the side of Yoon in his refusal to go easy on lawbreaking among those currently power and the loyal remainder, placing “pro-government” prosecutors in more important posts.
In global societies in the East and West alike, there can be ideological differences among public servants on individual levels; judges may show off their conservative and liberal credentials, for example. But it is seriously abnormal if prosecutors are assessed by their loyalty to the present power and are treated partially. Likewise, judges across the nation are screened by the court administration on the basis of their trial records as well as by their membership of associations of particular political orientations.
These regrettably are what South Koreans have witnessed since the formation of the Moon Jae-in government following the candlelight upheavals of 2016-17. The National Police has been reorganized into three lines; the (central) National Police Agency, the National Investigation Headquarters and the Autonomous Local Police. A new law transferred direct criminal investigation functions from the prosecution to the NIH except for a few kinds of felonies, and another statute established a special agency for investigation of high-ranking officials.
From this hurriedly pushed reform package, critics guess the ruling force’s endeavors to secure easier control of investigative functions are aimed at nothing other than the perpetuation of power, while more radical observers are warning of a scheme to establish a quasi-dictatorship. Yet, things are not at all so pessimistic. There are encouraging developments revealing that turning the tide in the entire areas of law enforcement is not as easy as they may dream of.
Both Choo and Yoon have resigned and new Justice Minister Park Beom-kye ordered acting Prosecutor General Cho Nam-kwan to make another review of the Han case, focused on prosecutors suborning perjury. Cho, who hitherto was considered “cooperative,” put the matter to a conference of 14 top-level prosecutors, including himself.
Not many were surprised at the conclusion of this ad hoc review team. In a vote of 10 to 2, they decided that there was no coercion or enticement of witnesses by prosecutors in the trial of Han Myong-suk and no need for indictment of perjury. Two abstained. An opposition spokesperson commented that the “save Han campaign suffered a final blow as the believers in the rule of law foiled the attempt to fabricate a bogus justice.”
Cho must represent the silent majority in the prosecution and he must have won the sympathy and approval of judges who care for justice rather than power. But he might have blown his chance to be named the next prosecutor general.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He served as director of the Korea Overseas Information Service in the Kim Dae-jung administration. -- Ed.