SEOUL – South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to punish the country’s top prosecutor, who is heading an investigation into former and current government officials, for disobedience, TV outlet Channel A reported, citing an unidentified government official.
Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl should be held “accountable for his wrongdoing,” the official said, according to Channel A. “We’re currently reviewing which law clauses can be applied to his case.”
Moon’s office declined to comment, while a phone call to the Justice Ministry was unanswered outside of office hours. An email sent to Yoon’s office outside work hours also went unanswered.
Yoon, a Moon appointee, is overseeing probes related to indicted former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. The Yonhap news agency reported that his office sent prosecutors to a presidential committee overseeing national development Thursday afternoon to search for evidence relating to alleged election interference.
Yoon also sent investigators to Moon’s office Friday to request “crime-relevant materials” but the Blue House rejected the request, presidential spokeswoman Ko Min-jung said in a text message.
Friction between Moon’s office and Yoon intensified after the Justice Ministry reassigned key prosecutors and Yoon lieutenants investigating scandals involving the president’s aides, just three months before a parliamentary election. The shake-up came days after Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae took office, pledging to carry out Moon’s reforms and re-balance the “almighty” prosecutors’ power.
The reassignments were included in 32 appointments announced by the Ministry of Justice on Wednesday. Three prosecutors recently named to senior posts under Yoon were on the list.
Choo blamed Yoon for forcing her hand by not submitting a reorganization plan for his department that she said she requested. He “disobeyed my order to make reassignment proposals,” Choo said at a parliamentary session Thursday.
An image of Choo’s text messages captured by a press camera late Thursday showed that she was asking her ministry to look up punishment law clauses because she wants to exercise her authority as the supervisor. She didn’t identify who she wants to punish.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon told Choo that it was “regrettable Yoon declined the justice minister’s request to propose opinions” for the appointments. The minister should “make a right judgment call and come up with a needed step,” Lee’s office said in a statement Thursday.
The presidency a week ago criticized the decision by Seoul prosecutors to indict Cho on a dozen charges including bribery, saying the move raised doubts about the probe’s intentions. Cho was a close aide to Moon before his appointment and his resignation in October after just five weeks as minister set back the president’s push to overhaul the prosecution system.
Moon saw his support rate fall to an all-time low in the wake of the Cho scandal. His ruling Democratic Party faces parliamentary elections in April and any setback would weaken Moon’s hand as he serves out the final two years of his single five-year term.