South Korea's culture minister resigns after arrest over arts blacklist

South Korea's Culture Minister Cho Yoon Sun arrives at the Seoul Central District court in Seoul, South Korea on Jan 20, 2017.
South Korea's Culture Minister Cho Yoon Sun arrives at the Seoul Central District court in Seoul, South Korea on Jan 20, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's culture minister resigned after being arrested on Saturday (Jan 21) for allegedly creating a "blacklist" of nearly 10,000 artists who voiced criticism of impeached President Park Geun Hye.

Cho Yoon Sun, who is the first minister in active service to be arrested in South Korea, is accused of creating the vast catalogue to starve the artists of government subsidies and private investments and place them under state surveillance.

The list's existence has sparked widespread anger, raising the spectre of Seoul's 1960-80s army-backed rule - including under dictator Park Chung Hee, the impeached leader's late father - when the news, arts and entertainment were heavily censored.

Shortly after her arrest, Cho tendered her resignation to Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn, a spokesman for the prime minister's office said.

The Seoul Central District Court had issued a warrant to arrest Cho on charges of abuse of authority and perjury following a request from prosecutors.

Cho, 50, known as "Park's Cinderella", is a staunch loyalist of the impeached president and previously served as the minister for gender equality.

The court also issued an arrest warrant for Kim Ki Choon, a powerful former chief of staff for Park. Kim is accused of ordering Cho to create the list of "left-leaning" artists.

Kim, 78, a former top intelligence official, came under fire for his alleged involvement in human rights abuses committed under Park's father.

"Charges are verified... and there are risks of the accused seeking to destroy evidence", a court judge said in a statement issuing the warrants for Cho and Kim.

Some Korean media reports have alleged that Park asked for the blacklist to be drawn up, while others said she approved it.

Prosecutors questioned Cho and Kim as part of their probe into a wider political scandal involving Park and her confidante, Choi Soon Sil, who is currently on trial for abuse of power and coercion.

Park stands accused of colluding with Choi to coerce top local firms including Samsung to "donate" nearly US$70 million (S$ 99.8 million) to non-profit foundations Choi later used for personal gain.

She is also accused of letting Choi, who has no title or security clearance, meddle in a wide range of state affairs including nomination of senior officials.

Park was impeached by parliament last month and Seoul's Constitutional Court is currently reviewing the validity of the motion, with the frequency of hearings sparking speculation that it might reach a verdict before mid-March.

The scandal has already seen more than a dozen former senior officials and presidential aides arrested.

But the Seoul Central District Court this week rejected a prosecution request for the arrest of Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong - who is accused of bribing Choi in a bid to seek governmental favours - citing lack of evidence.

The scandal has brought huge numbers of protesters onto the streets every Saturday over the past three months, urging the Constitutional Court to verify Park's impeachment and her immediate departure from office.

Protestors, whose number was estimated at 150,000 by organisers, braved icy weather and slippery roads for a rally in Seoul Saturday, demanding Park's removal and the arrest of Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong, accused of being involved in the bribery scandal.

The blacklist reads like a Who's Who of Seoul's art scene.

Among the names are novelist Han Kang, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and Oldboy film director Park Chan Wook, who won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival in 2004.

Many artists on the list had voiced support for opposition parties, or criticised or satirised the administration of Park or of her late father, who ruled from 1961 to 1979.