The decision to establish this body was adopted in late 2019 and subsequently, on 15 July 2020, Act No. 16863 on the Establishment and Operation of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials (in Korean) came into force.
This legal act sets up an independent body responsible for the investigation into alleged corruption crimes committed by:
- the President,
- the speaker and members of the National Assembly,
- the Prime-Minister,
- the presidents and chief justices of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts,
- the Prosecutor General,
- judges and public prosecutors,
- policemen not below the rank of Officer,
- civil servants not below grade 3, holding posts in the Presidential Secretariat, Office of National Security, Presidential Security Service and National Intelligence Service, as well as officials of other categories (the exhaustive list is provided in article 2 of the Act).
In addition, the mandate of the CIO extends to family members of the above-mentioned categories of officials: their spouses and lineal ascendants and descendants (parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren); for the President these are spouses and all relatives up to fourth degree of affinity. The number of targeted high-ranking officials is expected to be around 6,500-7,000.
The authority will investigate:
- Crimes related to the affairs of public officials (including bribery, abuse of functions, disclosing official secrets to private companies) under articles 122 through 133 of the Korean Criminal Code;
- Crimes associated with public documents under articles 144, 225, 227, 227-2 and 229 of the Criminal Code;
- Embezzlement and breach of trust under articles 355, 357 and 359 of the Criminal Code;
- Other crimes under specific laws, including acceptance of a bribe for mediation under the Attorney-at-Law Act; acceptance of illegal political funds under the Political Funds Act; or perjury before the National Assembly under the Act on Testimony, etc.
The CIO can conduct investigations not only against high-ranking officials who are suspected of having committed the aforementioned crimes, but also against:
- Any accomplices to such crimes committed by a high-ranking public official or his/her family member;
- Individuals who grant bribes to high ranking public officials;
- Individuals who conceal any criminal conduct regarding the crimes committed by high-ranking public officials or members of their families (for example, sheltering a criminal, flight, perjury, and destruction of evidence);
- Individuals who falsely accuse high-ranking public officials of having committed the above-mentioned crimes.
Also, the CIO can investigate any criminal conduct directly related to a crime committed by a high-ranking official if it is detected in the course of an investigation.
In the event that other investigative bodies detect elements of the crimes falling under the jurisdiction of the CIO, they must notify accordingly the Office and transfer the respective case to it upon notification.
However, the mandate of the CIO is mostly limited to investigation, after which it transfers cases to prosecutors’ office. The investigators of the CIO can indict only the Prosecutor General, prosecutors, judges and high-ranking police officers.
As we have already written, the CIO will have 25 prosecutors, including the head of the agency, and no more than 40 investigators. The head of the CIO and the prosecutors will be appointed by the President. However, the staff of the CIO has not been recruited yet in spite of the fact that the Office was established “on paper” nearly four months ago. The reason is a protracted process of setting up a committee assigned to find the chief of the CIO: it should include two members of the main opposition party which had not proposed its candidates for a long time. But even after the composition of the committee was approved, there is still concern that the opposition will “sabotage” the appointment of the head of the Office: in particular, one of its members in the committee has already said that in his view the CIO Act was unconstitutional. The authorities nevertheless intend to finally launch the body by the end of November: perhaps, it will be necessary to amend the Act to appoint the head of the CIO by a two thirds majority rather than by six out of seven members of the committee under the current version of the Act.
It should be highlighted that the CIO has been over 20 years in the making. The first legislative drive to establish the CIO was in 1996. Since then - until last December when the bill was finally passed - the National Assembly always had similar bills on the floor but never reviewed them.