By Don Southerton, Editor KoreaLegal.org
South Korea’s legal system has evolved over the past decades. Once rooted in Neo Confucian tradition, as Korea opened to the West they adopted much from Europe. This WSJ article notes a mandate to change, which includes, for example, a move towards the American-style grand jury system.
SEOUL—South Korea’s top prosecutor announced his support for the introduction of grand juries in the country, in what would be a major change to a legal system where power is concentrated with prosecutors.
The move is the most significant of the proposals announced Friday by Prosecutor General Kim Joon-gyu in response to a bribery and sex scandal involving about 100 current and former prosecutors in Busan, a city on South Korea’s southeast coast.
Mr. Kim proposed legislative changes to enact a U.S.-style grand jury system, a process that could take months, and said he would create citizens’ review panels for major cases in the meantime.
The decision could bring an advance in civil rights for South Korean individuals and a reduction in sometimes-abusive investigations of foreign businesses that have effectively been a trade barrier, analysts say.
For companies, South Korean prosecutors’ power has meant that simply being the target of an investigation can taint a reputation and damage business, even if no charges are brought. In the most high-profile such case in recent years, an attempt by the U.S. owner of Korea Exchange Bank to sell the institution was twice thwarted by a prolonged investigation into whether the company should have been allowed to buy the bank in the first place.
“It’s a paradigm shift,” says Jasper Kim, who teaches law in the international studies program at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul. “The question is in the execution, whether the grand juries function as simply a rubber stamp for prosecutors or as a bellwether test to a case.”
Prosecutors hold enormous power in South Korea’s justice system. Prosecutors, rather than police, preside over civil and criminal investigations. They decide whether to charge people with crimes, and don’t have to first prove the merit of the charges before a grand jury.
Prosecutors routinely disclose investigations to the media before charges are filed or trials are held, a practice that makes trials and court rulings less important for the public than an investigation.
The Busan scandal brought to a boil South Koreans’ long-simmering anger with prosecutors’ relatively unchecked power. In April, an investigation by South Korean TV network MBC turned up a construction-company executive who claimed to have systematically paid dozens of prosecutors for more than 20 years with cash, gifts, meals and prostitutes.
On June 9, the chairman of a special committee appointed to investigate the news report said some of the allegations were true. He recommended dismissal for a handful of prosecutors and financial penalties for others, though he didn’t recommend criminal charges because he found it difficult to link the payments to favors or other misconduct.
In a videoconference with 1,700 prosecutors nationwide on Friday, the prosecutor general, Mr. Kim, said the country needs a U.S.-style grand jury system for prosecutors to regain credibility. “The behavior of the prosecution will be revamped and those who do not follow the new trend will not keep their job,” Mr. Kim told the prosecutors.
South Korea’s legal system is rooted in communal practices that stretch back centuries, but it was modified 62 years ago with a civil-law-style system similar to France’s. The system instilled South Korean prosecutors with power and remained unchanged after the nation adopted a democratic constitution in 1987.
Abuses mounted through the years. In addition to occasional bribery scandals, prosecutors were widely perceived to be influenced by whatever political party held power. President Roh Moo-hyun, during his tenure from 2003 to 2008, sought to break the relationship between politicians and prosecutors and increase the role of judges as a check on prosecutors, but he stopped short of proposing a grand jury system.
WSJ Article Credit Evan Ramstad at email@example.com