When South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office, it was clear that fighting corruption was going to be high on his agenda. After all, his predecessor Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years for pressuring conglomerates such as Samsung and Lotte to give millions of dollars to her friend’s foundation. And the president before her was sentenced to 15 years for collecting bribes of up to $5.4 million from Samsung in exchange for favors. President Moon capitalized on the nation’s anger and sense of betrayal, pledging to crack down on corruption. Part of his reform agenda included addressing how Korea’s investigative and prosecutorial bodies—including the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office (SPO)—have handled, or mishandled, corruption cases.
This concern led to the enactment, in 2019, of legislation authorizing the creation of a new agency called the Corruption Investigation Office for High Ranking Officials (CIO). The CIO can investigate certain crimes, such as bribery and embezzlement, related to the duties of current and retired high-ranking public officials—including, but not limited to, the President, SPO prosecutors, judges, and members of the National Assembly. The CIO has the authority to investigate current and former officials, their family members, and other individuals who are implicated in the crimes under investigation. This means if a company employee bribes the grandson of a public official, then the CIO can investigate the company. Furthermore, other law enforcement agencies must immediately notify the CIO when they learn of crimes that fall under the CIO’s investigative jurisdiction, and the CIO can compel those cases to be transferred to it.
There is, however, a significant problem with this new system, one that will likely impede the CIO’s ability to hold high-level politicians and their cronies accountable: The CIO lacks the power to prosecute most of the cases it investigates. The CIO does have the limited authority to prosecute SPO prosecutors (including the Prosecutor General, who heads the SPO), as well as judges and high-ranking police officers. But for all of its other investigations, the CIO must turn the results of its inquiries over to the SPO, which retains the discretion to decide whether or whom to prosecute. Without independent prosecutorial authority, the CIO is unlikely to live up to its potential to make significant progress against high-level corruption.COntinue Reading