SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in's government reassigned three top prosecutors overseeing corruption into his administration, prompting cries from the opposition that he crossed a red line months before national elections.
The changes came as part of 32 appointments announced by the Ministry of Justice Wednesday (Jan 8).
The list included three prosecutors recently named to senior posts under Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, a graft-buster who's overseeing probes surrounding indicted former Justice Minister Cho Kuk.
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae blamed Mr Yoon for forcing her hand by not submitting the reorganisation plan she said she requested.
"He disobeyed my order to make reassignment proposals," Ms Choo said at a parliamentary session Thursday. Her office said the appointments were "typical and regular."
Mr Yoon's office declined to comment.
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.
Mr Moon's office, which must sign off on such appointments, said the reassignments were proper.
Any expectation among the South Korean public that the personnel moves would hurt the investigations reflected the society's deep mistrust of the prosecution system, a presidential office official told reporters Thursday on the condition of anonymity.
The presidency last week criticised 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 Mr 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.
Mr 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 Mr Moon's hand as he serves out the final two years of his single, five-year term.
Opposition groups criticised the reassignments, with the Liberty Korea Party denouncing them as "unconstitutional and undemocratic recklessness."
Mr Lee Man-hee, the LKP's floor spokesman, said that Mr Moon's government had "crossed a line it should have never crossed."
The shakeup came days after Ms Choo took office, pledging to carry out Mr Moon's reforms and re-balance the "almighty" prosecutors' power. The Justice Ministry overseas state prosecutors, who wield enormous powers to launch investigations.
Cho, the former minister, was accused of forging scholarship transcripts as part of his son's law school application, as well as fabricating internship certifications to help with his daughter get into medical school, the Yonhap News Agency said.
Cho's lawyer dismissed the charges as an "imaginary and fabricated political move."