Do prosecutors have too much power?

Police, prosecution again clash over investigative powers

By Jung Min-ho

There is no doubt that prosecutors are the most powerful officials in Korea’s criminal justice system.

They decide how to investigate cases for themselves or by directing police officers, whether to request warrants, whether criminal charges should be brought up and what the charges should be.

With all the major presidential hopefuls promising to reform the powerful institution, police officers are raising their voices for more power and independence from the prosecution in their investigative work.

Speaking to reporters Monday, National Police Agency Commissioner General Lee Chul-sung said it is wrong that prosecutors have the exclusive right to request warrants.

“The essence of the warrant requirement system is to allow the court to decide whether to issue warrants, not who should request them,” he said. “Over the issue, we will try our best to gain public trust.”

His comment came a few days after Hwang Un-ha, a senior police officer, said prosecutors have so much power that abuse is almost inevitable.

In today’s system, he claimed, prosecutors hold almost all the cards and exercise boundless discretion in making crucial decisions, and yet their powers are barely checked.

One of them is the power to decide whether to end a probe. Police officers are allowed to start an investigation but need a prosecutor’s permission to end it. Prosecutors also have wide prosecutorial discretion, which they use sometimes against police officers’ opinions over whether to bring charges against suspects.

Hwang also accused the prosecution of being part of the massive corruption scandal, which eventually removed former President Park Geun-hye from office.

In a recent public speech, Prosecutor General Kim Soo-nam defended the current system, claiming the prosecution was born to prevent police abuse of investigative powers in the past.

Fights between prosecutors and police officers over the issue have long ceased to be news here.

But after a series of corruption cases involving prosecutors over the past year, demand for sweeping reform is stronger than ever.

Last month, Keum Tae-sup, a prosecutor-turned-lawmaker from the minor People’s Party, proposed a bill to prevent prosecutors from abusing power by limiting their investigative powers to exceptional cases such as the ones involving police officers.

Meanwhile, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, the two most popular candidates running to be the next president, said they will keep prosecutors in check by removing their investigative powers and establishing an independent organization to fight corruption problems of high-ranking government officials. But they disagree over how much and how fast the reform should be made.

Yet it is unclear whether they will keep their word. Many presidential candidates promised the same thing over the past 20 years but have done little to change things.

Observers say what hinders the prosecution’s reform the most has been its “convenience” to the president, who takes advantage of the prosecution’s power while he or she remains in power.

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