THE SUPREME Prosecutors’ Office is an austere-looking building situated near Exit 6 of Seocho Station in Gangnam. As one of the supporting pillars of the South Korean justice system, the headquarter oversees 66 prosecutors’ offices and its 2,292 prosecutors and 8,337 staff members, a small number compared to the 116,000-member police force. The size also reflects its visibility to the common people, who are more familiar with the roles of judges, advocates, and police officers. Movies like Nameless Gangster: Rule of Time, and the Korean adaptation of the American TV series Suits seem to show prosecutors to be everywhere—leading investigations to presenting the cases in court. Present in every step of the legal process, what does a prosecutor’s job actually entail? For that, The Yonsei Annals interviewed Park Yoon-hee, Deputy Spokesperson of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, who has been serving as a prosecutor since her appointment in 2007. Park shared the ins and outs of the prosecution system, as well as what aspiring prosecutors should expect entering the field.
Annals: Can you briefly outline the responsibilities of a prosecutor?
Park: While we associate the police with the task of investigations and the court with trials, not many are familiar with what prosecutors do. The Prosecutors’ Office is essentially responsible for evaluating the validity of a crime based on evidence collected from the crime scene. If the prosecution makes a formal accusation against the defendant*, the case is sent to The Supreme Court of Korea for trial. This is known as the process of indictment. Cases that do not require a trial are suspended, meaning they are abandoned for lack of evidence.
However, we are not limited to reviewing reports sent in by the police; prosecutors possess the authority to instruct and lead supplementary investigations if they deem the evidence to be insufficient. Additionally, the Prosecutors’ Office has the jurisdiction to initiate direct investigation for special cases, such as corruption or incidents that have captured national attention.
Prosecutors are also assigned with maintenance of public prosecution, which refers to the entire process of proving the validity of crime throughout the trail that follows after indictment, some of which include re-examination and provision of additional evidence during court appeal processes.
Once the Court decides on a punishment, it is the responsibility of the Prosecutors’ Office to execute the order. Our work is strongly tied to different legal bodies, so sometimes the roles can be hard to distinguish.
Annals: Can you also discuss the position and advantages of a prosecutor in the South Korean legal system?
Park: The Prosecutors’ Office is a quasi-judicial body** of the South Korean justice system with considerable degree of autonomy. Although it belongs under the Ministry of Justice, it is an organization with unique roles and responsibilities. Prosecutors have the power to indict, verify, and execute the maintenance of public prosecution independently under their own names. The Prosecutors’ Office Act mandates that the Minister of Justice only has the right to command and oversee the general affairs of the head of the Prosecutors’ Office, and is not allowed to interfere in individual cases handled by the organization.
Besides carrying out legal duties, another important mission of the Prosecutors’ Office is to provide support programs for victims. Victims of crime still have to deal with pain and trauma even after the case is resolved. The Prosecutors’ Office collaborates with the crime victim centers to provide support ranging from therapy to financial assistance to relocate victims from their current living area where they might struggle to continue their lives. Another one of our services include effective witness protection programs to escort and protect witnesses who have security and privacy concerns after agreeing to testify in court. .
Annals: What would an average day of a prosecutor look like?
Park: Work hours are usually from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., like for all the other civil servants, but it is hard to leave on time due to the sheer amount of assignments. Movies and dramas tend to show the prosecutor who led the investigation to attend the trial as well; however, this is not exactly true in real life. There are two kinds of prosecutors: the investigation prosecutor and the trial prosecutor. Due to court schedules for trials and the endless inflow of cases, workload is evenly split for efficiency. There are also separate prosecutors for indictment and maintenance of public prosecution. Depending on which one you are, work life will be quite different.
Annals: So, what are the differences between an investigation prosecutor and a trial prosecutor?
Park: Investigation prosecutors normally receive their assigned cases at around 5 p.m. The next morning, they start the day by skimming through the files and sorting them based on the level of complexity. Prosecutors first focus on the simple and straightforward cases that can be evaluated on the spot; most of them can either be ordered for summary trials (which often involve fines and misdemeanour) or be suspended. Cases that do not require additional investigation or clarification are also classified as “easy” cases, with police reports deemed sufficient enough to determine indictment. The more complex ones are set aside for closer inspection. The sorting process typically lasts until noon. After that, the prosecutor orders case specialists to carry out the supplementary investigations. Their evenings are spent writing and finalizing documents with their decisions.
Trial prosecutors have drastically different work schedules: they start work at 9 a.m. by going through the cases that have a trial scheduled for the day. They read over the case files with important notes and comments made by the investigation prosecutor. Trials usually begin at 10 a.m. The trial prosecutor is responsible for various court procedures, including cross-examination and demanding of sentences. Although trials normally end by 6 p.m., some trials can end as late as 10 p.m., if the case is particularly complex. Second-year prosecutors are appointed to trial prosecution as a part of their training in order to experience first-hand how pre-trial investigations and reports are utilized in court.
Annals: What are the aspects of this job that inspired you to become a prosecutor?
Park: I admit becoming a prosecutor was not my dream as a child. However, what attracted me to this occupation is the level of freedom prosecutors has when carrying out their roles to seek the truth behind each and every case. As mentioned earlier, the quasi-judicial nature of the Prosecutors’ Office grants individual prosecutors the independent rights to clear any doubts they have if the reports of the cases are unclear or insufficient. We are given the right to evaluate and carry out supplementary investigations if deemed necessary and such freedom consistently helped me to solve many cases that turned out to be different from the initial reports received. Such unique traits of prosecutors, for me, made the profession much more attractive among other law professions.
Also, for people who get involved in a legal case, attending trials is a significant event in their lives; so the burden lies on the prosecutors who are accountable for most of the legal proceedings. Despite that, working as a prosecutor also grants you the unique opportunity to uncover the truth and lead the way to justice.
Annals: What are some of the challenges you face while working as a prosecutor?
Park: Prosecutors are regularly transferred to different office branches in order to ensure objectivity in their work and decisions. The frequency of relocation depends on the position of the prosecutor in the Office; ordinary prosecutors are relocated every two years while chief prosecutors change offices annually. There are a total of 66 prosecution offices nationwide. One of the main reasons for this system is to prevent inappropriate relationships or connections, especially since prosecutors have the autonomy to determine whether or not to indict a case. Constant relocations can be challenging to those who have families—some prosecutors have to move to new places without them. It is common for those prosecutors to travel back and forth to visit their families, sometimes twice a week if they are sent to remote regions far away from home.
Additionally, prosecutors face heavy workload as the size of the organization is much smaller than that of other law enforcement organizations such as the police. An average prosecutor is assigned roughly 150 cases to handle every month, and considering the complex processes involved for a case to be sent to the court and get the sentence, this is exerting a lot of pressure. With heavy responsibilities and limited time, it is common for prosecutors to work long hours in the office, and also pose challenges for them to balance between family and work. This was not an exception for me, as I was also forced to give up a significant time I could spend with my family to fulfil my duty as a prosecutor; I was only able to attend my son’s graduation ceremony only once throughout his schooling years. As for the work itself, making difficult decisions is a part of our job. A typical example is situations where the accused and the victim give conflicting statements and we have little evidence to prove either side wrong. When that happens, I have to face the question of how to continue the investigation and where to look for clues.
Annals: Despite these challenges, where do you get the sense of fulfilment from your career as a prosecutor?
Park: The media tends to portray a prosecutor as someone with the ability to make a significant social impact through crackdowns on major corruption and crime. The truth is, not many prosecutors feel pride or satisfaction from that. A prosecutor’s day consists of heavy workload and numerous responsibilities. What motivates me is the sense of personal achievement I feel in every case I handle. Nothing makes me prouder than when the investigation I ordered leads to the discovery of a critical piece of evidence—or when I help solve juvenile cases which I care deeply about. Remembering that sense of accomplishment is all I need to continue working hard.
Annals: What tips would you give to your younger self who aspired to enter the field?
Park: Nowadays, there are many educational activities available to foster greater awareness of the important work prosecutors do. University students can apply for various programs and initiatives of the Prosecutors’ Office, one of which being Pro-to-You reporters’ club that covers various events hosted by the organization and delivers information to improve the public’s understanding of the Prosecutors’ Office itself. Pro-to-you reporter’s club regularly publish articles to online platforms, such as blogs and social media to serve their roles as information bridge between the public and the Prosecutors’ Office. Additionally, the Prosecutors’ Office organizes regular tours around the facilities, such as Prosecutors’ Office History Hall and Interaction Hall. If I could give a word of advice to my younger self in university, I would definitely encourage myself to have learned more about the organization through these activities before becoming a prosecutor.
It would also be beneficial to develop the knowledge and skillset required to make good decisions; one would be attentive listening.
Lastly, since cases reflect certain societal issues and trends, I would encourage myself to be constantly aware and interested in current affairs and the events happening around me; the more you know, the more you see.
Annals: Any last comments to those who aspire to be prosecutors in the future?
Park: If you want to be a prosecutor, I recommend erasing any fantasies that you may have of being the hero and punishing “evil.” I want to encourage the students to realize the gravity of the occupation and the impact our decisions have on the lives of ordinary Korean citizens. It is important to keep in mind that what you might regard as just another paper in a stack could mean the whole world to somebody.
*defendant: An individual or company who is accused of committing an illegal offense
**a quasi-judicial body: a non-judicial body who possesses the power to hold hearings, conduct investigations, and make decisions for law disputes and infringements in the manner of the court. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)