South Korea Justice Minister resigns, posing challenge to President Moon's government

President Moon Jae-in Moon takes the situation with a "heavy-heart," and is "very sorry" to the South Korean people. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in is faced with a decision on the fate of his Justice Minister after she offered to resign over a dispute with the country's top prosecutor that helped send the government's approval rating to a record low.

Moon late Wednesday (Dec 16) approved a Justice Ministry's disciplinary committee decision to suspend Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl from his duty for two months, his office said. Separately, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae tendered her resignation to Moon, who is currently reviewing whether to accept it, according to senior public communication secretary Chung Man-ho.

Moon takes the situation with a "heavy-heart", and is "very sorry" to the South Korean people, Chung said in a late Wednesday briefing. Yoon, who has emerged in public opinion surveys as a top candidate for the next President, has said he will fight the suspension.

Public opinion surveys show backing for Yoon and troubling signs for Moon's progressive camp, which saw its support rate slip and be overtaken for the first time in about four months by the conservative faction, according to a Realmeter poll this month. The shift comes as Moon's single, five-year terms ends in 2022 and conservatives are looking to take back the presidential Blue House.

Moon's decision on whether to keep his Justice Minister comes as he tries to build support in a parliament controlled by his progressives for a raft of legislation that includes making South Korea carbon-neutral by 2050 and strengthening the government's fiscal role to rebuild a virus-hit economy by increasing the budget by 8.5 per cent.

His progressive camp faced heat for pushing through a Bill last week that advanced Moon's plans to set up a Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials. The CIO would curtail the authority of prosecutors, and 54.2 per cent of respondents saw the parliamentary move last week as inappropriate, according to Realmeter poll released on Monday.

Yoon has launched corruption probes into members of Moon's government, which included an investigation of the Justice Minister for suspected nepotism - a charge she denies.

Choo, a staunch Moon ally, has accused the top prosecutor of thwarting the President's attempts at reform. Last month, she suspended him on allegations of abusing his office, which he appealed and won a court injunction allowing him to return to his post. This led to the Wednesday decision from the panel in her ministry that said Yoon was politically biased.

The authority of prosecutors has been a sore spot in South Korea for years. Although the office pledges independence, it has faced criticism from the left and right for using its power for political purposes and protecting the privileged. The debate over prosecutorial power has even led to an award-winning television drama series titled Stranger, which travelled globally on Netflix.

Yoon was handpicked by Moon in 2019, with a mandate to make good on the President's pledges to clean up government and go after the most powerful. But soon after taking office, he focused his attention on Moon's pick at the time to lead the Justice Ministry - Cho Kuk.

A close aide to Moon, Cho was indicted on a dozen charges, including bribery. Cho was forced from office while calling the charges false and politically motivated. The scandal sent Moon's support rate to what was then its all-time low.

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