South Korea’s Moon Faces Barrage of Scandal Questions Ahead of Elections

Jihye Lee

(Bloomberg) -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in faced a barrage of questions about purges of prosecutors looking into corruption in his administration, in the latest sign that the scandals could weigh on upcoming national elections.

At a new year’s news conference Tuesday -- typically one of the presidency’s biggest annual media events -- Moon defended his administration’s decision last week to reassign three prosecutors working on probes that had embarrassed the government. He deflected questions about whether the man overseeing the investigations, Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, still had his confidence.

“The people are demanding reform in the prosecution because they feel it is acting on authority that exceeds the law,” Moon said. “The people applaud the prosecutors’ investigation, but in the process they see cases of uncontrolled investigative rights or publicizing the facts of suspected crimes that lead to media manipulation.”

Opposition politicians have accused Moon of trying to interfere in the inquires into his administration. The showdown comes as Moon’s ruling Democratic Party faces parliamentary elections in April, in which any setback would weaken the president’s hand as he serves out the final two years of his single, five-year term.

Moon’s support has recovered since falling to record lows immediately after his former justice minister, Cho Kuk, was forced to resign in October amid scrutiny from Yoon’s probes. The president’s approval rating rose 3 percentage points to 47% last week, according to Gallup Korea.

Moon said he wanted to press ahead with plans to reform the prosecution system, which he described as concentrating too much power at the top. Moon said he was “terribly indebted to” Cho for his contributions to the administration before his indictment last month.

“I ask the people to let this Cho Kuk issue go, and let the court decide whether or not he is guilty,” Moon said. Cho, who previously served as a presidential aide, resigned after just five weeks as justice minister, setting back the Moon’s push to overhaul the prosecution system.

Prosecuters indicted Cho on a dozen counts, including accusations that he helped forge scholarship transcripts as part of his son’s law school application and fabricated internship certifications to help with his daughter get into medical school. Cho has denied the allegations.

At the news conference, a press aide twice tried to change the topic as reporters focused on Yoon and Cho. But Moon also faced difficult questions about his struggle to curb soaring home prices, boost a sputtering labor market and ease rising tensions with North Korea.

Nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea -- a core focus of Moon’s presidency -- have also stalled. Kim Jong Un declared in speech to start the year that a lack of U.S. response in nuclear talks meant he was no longer bound by his pledge to halt major missile tests and would soon debut a “new strategic weapon.”

Kim’s regime has repeatedly rejected Moon’s efforts to mediate. On Saturday, a top North Korean foreign minister adviser, Kim Kye Gwan, said South Korea should “behave prudently not to be reduced to a fool heading nowhere.”

“I don’t think there is a lot of time left for North Korea and the U.S.,” Moon said. “The talks have not been cut off, but there is no progress.”

--With assistance from Shinhye Kang and Seyoon Kim.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jihye Lee in Seoul at jlee2352@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Jon Herskovitz

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