SEOUL -- The prosecutor who spearheaded the investigation of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye resigned as prosecutor general on Thursday, opening the way for a possible presidential run next year.
Yoon Seok-youl, who strongly opposes prosecutorial reforms being pursued by the administration of President Moon Jae-in, left with a pointed attack on the government and the ruling party.
"The spirit of the constitution and the system of constitutional government are collapsing, and the people will suffer damage. I can no longer stand by and watch justice and common sense come undone," Yoon said. "My job at the prosecutor's office is finished."
Although he did not touch on his future plans, Yoon said he would make every effort to "protect liberal democracy and defend the people," suggesting he may stand in the presidential election scheduled for March 2022.
The Moon administration has been pushing to reduce the authority of the powerful prosecutors' office.
In January, the government established a new office to investigate corruption among senior government personnel, taking that role away from prosecutors. That same month, another law transferred the power of investigation from prosecutors to the police. In February, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea proposed a bill to transfer the authority to investigate six areas, including fraud and corruption, to a newly established organization that probes serious crimes. Yoon strongly opposed these measures.
During the Park era (2013-2017), Yoon investigated a case in which an intelligence agency had been manipulating information for the benefit of the president. This led him to be demoted.
The Moon administration recalled him to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office and ultimately elevated him to the top prosecutorial position. However, when Yoon began to investigate aspects of the Moon administration, officials demoted his aides and prosecutors on the investigation team. Yoon was also briefly suspended.
Yoon, who is unafraid of challenging authority, is popular with the public. According to the Realmeter polling company, Yoon has the second highest support rate among possible candidates for the election, trailing Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, a member of Moon's Democratic Party. Lee Nak-yon, the party's head was placed third.
The conservative opposition parties, which have not been able to find a strong candidate for the upcoming election, are banking on Yoon running.
"The people will demand that Yoon runs to lead the clash with the Moon administration," said Chang Je-won, a lawmaker and member of the People's Power Party, on a TV program. "It will help the opposition camp."
The ruling Democratic Party, meanwhile, was critical.
"It has become clear it was a lie when Mr. Yoon in his inaugural speech as prosecutor general said that he would continue to reform the prosecutors' office until it became an institution trusted by the people," a party spokesperson said.