SEOUL -- A highly popular President Moon Jae-in is cracking down on alleged misconduct by senior officials who served under South Korea's past two conservative administrations, fueling concerns that these probes could exacerbate political rifts in the country.
The May presidential election ushered in the first liberal government in nine years in South Korea. Moon, cheered on by the public as a reformer, enjoys an approval rating above 70%.
South Korean prosecutors on Monday summoned for questioning Lee Byung-kee, who served as chief of the National Intelligence Service and ambassador to Japan under disgraced former President Park Geun-hye. The agency faces allegations of giving a total of around 4 billion won ($3.56 million) to the Park administration in monthly payments to her senior aides.
Former Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin was arrested Saturday, accused of engaging in cyberactivities to sway public opinion against liberal parties. Kim is believed to have acted on orders from then-President Lee Myung-bak, local media report, raising questions of whether Lee himself will face an investigation.
Prosecutors also have banned Kim Tae-hyo, who was a key national security adviser to Lee Myung-bak, from leaving the country. Kim Tae-hyo is expected to be questioned soon.
Moon vows to eliminate the country's deep-rooted problems. But Lee Myung-bak slammed the government Sunday, arguing that its recent moves smack of "political revenge" rather than reform efforts.
Labor unions and civic groups that clashed with past conservative leaders are gaining influence under Moon. A support group for former wartime "comfort women" reported Lee Byung-kee and other top Park officials to the authorities, alleging abuse of power. Lee Byung-kee was instrumental in inking a controversial 2015 agreement with Japan intended to fully resolve the comfort women issue.
The unions at two broadcasters, including state-run KBS, have been on strike since September seeking the removal of their Park-appointed chiefs, whom they claim suppressed criticisms of her government. As a result, the outlets have been forced to shorten news broadcasts and suspend other programs.
Gallup Korea places Moon's approval rating at 74%, the second highest for a South Korean president six months into the term. Moon insists that the country will unite once longtime political vices are eradicated. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea fully backs his position, claiming that without reform South Korea's government will be nothing more than a "sand castle."
Conservatives are raising concerns. Political retaliation should play no part when the country is trying to unite itself and cope with North Korea's nuclear threat, said an official with the leading opposition Liberty Korea Party.
South Korea's liberals and conservatives remain deeply divided eight months after Park was removed from office. Leading daily Chosun Ilbo warned in a recent article that the country could face turmoil if it continues on its current course.