S.Korean film ‘The Red Herring’ sheds light on politicized prosecutors
The other side of the story
Published: May 30, 2022 06:43 PM
People walk through a street in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: IC

People walk through a street in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: IC

South Korean documentary The Red Herring has shed light on the danger of politicized prosecutors by tracking what happened to Cho Kuk, former justice minister who propelled the reform of the prosecutors' office.

"From the perspective of common people, there seemed to be a problem with the prosecutors' office and the media but Cho also had a problem. Most of them thought like that. My perspective was not far from it," director Yi Seung-jun said in an interview with the Xinhua News Agency one day before the film hit local theaters on Wednesday.

Yi is well-known for directing In the Absence, a documentary film on the deadly Sewol ferry sinking in 2014 that became the first-ever South Korean documentary to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2020.

The Red Herring took the third spot at the domestic box office for the first three days of its release, according to the Korean Box Office Information System (KOBIS), which was a remarkable record set by a documentary.

Yi said he was "astounded" by "unexposed and hidden facts" that he recognized while scrutinizing materials relevant to the so-called "Cho Kuk incident" and interviewing people who witnessed the trial in court and even were interrogated by prosecutors because of the testimony in favor of Cho and his family.

Since Cho's days as a professor at the prestigious Seoul National University School of Law, Cho had been an advocate of the prosecution reform and currently got emblematic of it as he and his family went through the mill to overhaul the prosecution service, one of the country's most powerful institutions.

Cho had been in a media storm from the day he was nominated as the minister of justice and stepped down five weeks into his tenure as the minister in 2019.

To deflect attention from what can be important, red herrings had been drawn across the path of investigations by spreading unsubstantiated media reports that Cho had an affair with an actress or that his daughter drove a luxury sedan. Most of such reports later proved wrong.

"What prosecutors and journalists did is something of a red herring. It looks clear that they had a certain purpose. To achieve the purpose, it appears that [prosecutors] leaked information and [journalists] blindly took it," the director said.

Cho was indicted on 12 charges, and his wife was sentenced to four years in prison by the top court.

Critics said the prosecution service politically targeted Cho, a key architect of the prosecution reform schemes under the previous government that aimed to curb the prosecutors' excessive power.

South Korean prosecutors have the power to indict or not indict suspects, and the authority to launch investigations that are generally conducted by the police in other countries. Even after the reform drive, they still have the right to investigate politically sensitive cases on corruption and economic crimes.

"I do not say every prosecutor is bad and deserves to be blamed. I think most of the prosecutors perform their duty in a very devoted way," the director said.

The director cast doubt on a group of politically motivated prosecutors, whose excessive power will force themselves to turn every suspect into convicts in a bid to justify their overbearing investigations and indictments.

"This film does not say whether Cho is guilty or not. It can be decided beyond the documentary. What it wants to say is whether the [legal] process was fair," Yi said.

"I don't intend to present a [predetermined] right answer. I think people got lost in a sea of media reports for the past years that unilaterally took one side. I tried to show the other side and throw a question [to the audience]," he noted.