Back in December 2019, South Korean President Moon Jae-in achieved what seemed like a major victory in his anticorruption platform when the National Assembly established a new agency, the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials (CIO). Armed with broad investigatory authority, as well as a more limited but nonetheless important power to prosecute members of the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office (SPO), the CIO was supposed to be at the vanguard of the effort to clean up South Korean government. Yet for over a year, the CIO was unable to operate because it had no Director General. The reason for this had to do with the original design of the mechanism for selecting this official. In an effort to ensure a consensus candidate and avoid politicization of the agency, the original CIO legislation required that a Director General candidate receive the support of six out of the seven members of a Recommendation Committee composed of the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Court Administration, the President of the Korean Bar Association, two members from President Moon’s party, and two members from the opposition People Power Party (PPP). That system meant that at least one opposition party member would need to support a candidate for that candidate to be appointed, thus preventing the President from installing a crony.
The system, however, did not work as intended, because the two PPP members on the Committee refused to confirm any of the candidates put before the Committee. Finally, in December 2020, a year after the CIO’s creation, the National Assembly passed a bill that reduced the number of votes needed to recommend a candidate from six to five. This enabled the Recommendation Committee to appoint (over the opposition of the Committee’s two PPP members) the CIO’s first Director General, Kim Jin-wook, and the CIO finally began operating in January. Naturally, the PPP was outraged. This change to the appointment procedure, the PPP argued, undermines the CIO’s independence and enables the President to ensure that this powerful agency is run by a loyalist, who is likely to be unfairly biased against the opposition.
This concern is fair, up to a point. Three of the seven members of the Committee—the two members of the majority party and the Minister of Justice—are closely aligned with the President. The Minister of Court Administration is appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, not the President, but the President appoints the Chief Justice, and Korean Chief Justices have a history of colluding with presidents. A fifth member, the President of the Korean Bar Association, is elected by a vote among the local bar chapters. While this may provide some check on the President, it is a weak one, and the PPP and other critics are right to be concerned.
Nevertheless, the reduction in the required number of votes from six to five was an improvement under the circumstances. The threat of biased anticorruption investigations, though real, is not much greater with the new version of the CIO than under the status quo. And while greater safeguards would be welcome, there are better ways to promote an unbiased agency than to give the opposition a veto over its leader.Continue reading