[Editorial] Fairness questioned

By Korea Herald

Justice Ministry uses part of prosecution’s special activity budget; Suspicions need to be cleared 

  • Published : Nov 22, 2017 - 17:55
  • Updated : Nov 22, 2017 - 17:55

In a situation where two former directors of the National Intelligence Service have been arrested on bribery charges for giving part of their “special activity” budgets to Cheong Wa Dae, the prosecution itself has come under suspicion of having effectively offered the Ministry of Justice part of its funds for special activities.

The fairness of prosecutorial investigation has come into question.

As might be expected, the opposition Liberty Korea Party is calling for an investigation of former and incumbent prosecutor generals and justice ministers. It is also considering taking steps to hold a parliamentary inspection into the two agencies and appoint a special counsel.

The point of controversy is that the Justice Ministry has used part of the prosecution’s 17.8 billion won ($16.2 million) special activity account for this year, despite 10.5 billion won being allocated to the ministry for its special activities.

The opposition party claims the minister and a few other senior officials of the ministry have used 30 to 40 percent of the 17.8 billion won. The ministry says it has customarily set aside part of the prosecution’s special activity budget for it to use before giving the remaining amount to the prosecution. The ministry has not revealed how much it has set aside and on where it has been spent.

According to the ministry, the prosecution uses part of the ministry’s special activity budget, not vice versa, as a subordinate unit. What the ministry means is that the money set aside is not a bribe, as it could well be in the case of the NIS.

A special activity account in the government is a budget needed to perform tasks that require confidentiality. Most of the spending does not need to be corroborated.

The prosecution is required to use the money to collect intelligence on crimes for investigation. Unlike the prosecution, the ministry is not an investigative agency. A special activity budget was originally meant to be used by the prosecution, not the ministry.

If it is bribery for a president to have received 100 million won each month from the NIS out of its special activity account, then what is it for the Justice Ministry to set aside the prosecution’s special activity budget beforehand and use it?

On Monday, the prosecution raided the offices and home of Rep. Choi Kyung-hwan of the main opposition party, who is suspected of having accepted about 100 million won from a senior NIS official out of its special activity account.

Choi strongly denies the accusation.

If the suspicion turns out to be fact, it will have a huge impact, because there is a high likelihood that the NIS special activity budget may have been used to bribe other lawmakers or high-level government officials in addition to former President Park Geun-hye.

Prosecutorial investigations should be fair. The same yardstick should be applied to all legislative and executive agencies.

The starting point for an equitable investigation is the prosecution.

The ministry and prosecution should clarify themselves regarding their special activity budgets. Prosecutors’ investigation of the ministry, with superior authority, may have realistic difficulties. That is why a parliamentary hearing or audit of the agencies is worthy of consideration.

Many people harbor doubts about the investigation of NIS special activity budgets under conservative presidents, as it has turned a blind eye to liberal presidencies of the past and other agencies. Keeping silent on its own suspicions cannot but breed distrust.

The need to reform the government’s special activity budgets has been raised many times based on the likelihood of embezzlement. With the budget issue in the spotlight, now is the appropriate time to revamp them definitively.

However, if the problem ends up in a political battle and nothing more, reform efforts will likely go down the drain again. A system to prevent agencies from misusing their special activity budgets needs to be institutionalized. Ways should be also sought to raise their transparency while minimizing them.

Special activity budgets, which can amount to as much as 1 trillion won, come from taxpayer money. They cannot be left unattended indefinitely under the pretext of confidentiality.