South Korean president consolidates grip on policing power

South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol, despite criticism, pushes ahead to gain control of the national police force.  On August 2, he launched a police bureau within the Ministry of Interior and Safety to oversee the work of the police, letting him appoints key officials without parliamentary consent.  On August 10, he appointed a new chief for the Korean National Police Agency. Critics charged that Yoon, a former prosecutor-general, wants to build a prosecutor-first culture by undermining the police force.

In early July, according to the Seoul Shinmun, there is talk of Yoon wanting to create a similar bureau to oversee the Coast Guard as well. An anonymous official was quoted as saying that top management had discussed internally the creation of such a bureau.  However, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries has denied the allegation and told Maritime Fairtrade there is currently no plan to set up a coast guard bureau.

In the past, law enforcement is independent from the executive branch.  Since 1991, the police force gained autonomy with the collapse of the dictatorship regime.  During the dictatorship regime, the police was used to brutally suppress student-led democratic protests and the turning point came when Park Jong-chul, a student protester died from excessive torture in 1987.  Soon after, the National Assembly passed the Police Act, to delineate the jurisdiction of the police force.

Now, with Yoon trying to regain control of the police, many law enforcement officers feel that it is a step backward and a threat to police’s neutrality.

Representative Lee Won Taeg, a lawmaker from the Democratic Party of Korea, said that the creation of this coast guard bureau can seriously undermine the country’s constitution and allow the administration to interfere in investigations and filing of charges.

“The government should not have the right to control the coast guard or police’s power,” Lee said.  Lee added that strengthening the existing Korea Coast Guard Commission is better than creating a new bureau.

“If need be, we can strengthen the stature of the commission under Article 5 of Coast Guard Act,” Lee said. “The commission is a body that operates, deliberates, and decides on the overall operation of the Coast Guard, including enacting and revising laws. The members of this commission are appointed by the President upon the requests of the Minister of Oceans and Fisheries.”

Lee said the ministry’s duties should be focused on economic and industrial issues, including the construction of ports, support for the shipping industry, and management of marine resources, rather than policing rights or maritime security.

“The ministry should make careful decisions to ensure independence and political neutrality of the Coast Guard, and to pursue maritime security without being swayed by the administration’s pressure,” he said. “The ministry should rather focus on pressing challenges such as high petrol price impacting fishing boats, the release of Fukushima’s contaminated waste, or diminishing population in old fishing towns.”

31 years after the watershed 1991, Yoon is now saying the police force is too powerful and there needs to be oversight and monitoring from the executive branch.  One reason may be that during the final days of the former Moon administration, a law was passed and will come into effect in September, which strips away the prosecution’s investigative powers.

In the past, current administrations investigated and prosecuted previous administrations for wrongdoings. Former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye were both charged and jailed for corruption and abuse of power during the liberal Moon administration.

Photo credit: iStock/ TkKurikawa. Seoul, South Korea, October 22, 2016. Police officers stand in line in Seoul.

Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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