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Politics

South Korea's top prosecutor fights suspension as reform battle rages

Moon administration's moves to defang powerful office galvanize opposition

South Korean Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, left, and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. (Choo photo courtesy of South Korea's presidential office, Yoon photo by Yonhap/Kyodo)

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in's prosecutorial reform push has landed in court as Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl seeks an injunction against his suspension from duty by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae.

The Seoul Administrative Court held a hearing on the case Monday. Choo's representative called for the petition to be dismissed, arguing that the suspension was "necessary" in light of alleged "grave misconduct" by Yoon. The head prosecutor's side asserted that the move was "illegal and inappropriate," and incompatible with democracy and the rule of law.

The battle could prove a pivotal moment in Moon's campaign to rein in the country's prosecutors' office, which enjoys wide-ranging powers to launch and pursue investigations.

The court is expected to reach a decision within the next day or two. If the injunction is granted, Yoon will be able to return to work. But local media reports indicate that Choo plans to press for Yoon's removal regardless of the outcome, in an apparent response to resistance to reform among prosecutors that has bogged down one of Moon's signature initiatives.

A Justice Ministry disciplinary committee will convene Wednesday to determine whether and how to penalize Yoon. Should it decide to remove him, the move would need to be approved by Moon, who has the final say on appointments.

Under Yoon, the prosecutors' office has investigated multiple allegations potentially involving top figures in Moon's government. If the prosecutor general stays in his post, conservatives in parliament, who have aligned with prosecutors in opposition to the administration, could feel freer to ramp up their protests against reform.

As a central element of the reform drive, Moon's administration created the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials to handle probes into high-level politicians in prosecutors' stead. But the new body remains without a head due to resistance from the main opposition party in parliament.

The progressive ruling Democratic Party of Korea, which holds a majority of seats, has submitted a revision to the legislation to allow for appointments to be made without consent from the opposition. The measure is expected to pass without the opposition's involvement.

The new body will be responsible for investigating politicians, top government officials and former presidents. Its launch is expected to curb the massive influence currently wielded by the prosecutors' office.

Concerned rank-and-file prosecutors have begun pushing back against Choo's hardhanded moves. According to the conservative newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, 98% of the country's roughly 1,800 prosecutors backed a statement saying that Yoon's suspension is illegal.

Amid the growing rift between South Korea's government and prosecutors, Yoon has emerged as a torchbearer for Moon's political opponents. He was the preferred presidential candidate of 19.8% of respondents to a Realmeter poll published Monday, falling just short of Lee Nak-yon, the head of the Democratic Party who claimed the top spot with 20.6%.

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