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Acting justice minister offers to step down amid probe, prosecutors

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Published : 2017-05-19 10:31
Updated : 2017-05-19 15:33

South Korea's acting justice minister offered to resign Friday, one day after the ministry and state prosecutors launched internal corruption investigations into their own officials, who are suspected of intentional negligence to afford leniency toward a former presidential secretary.

"I did my best to maintain law and order as acting justice minister amid a national crisis. But I decided to step down believing I must be the first one to give up what I have in order to win the people's trust in regard to the recent incident," Lee Chang-jae said.

Lee, a vice minister, has been serving as an acting head of the justice ministry since late November when former minister Kim Hyun-woong stepped down, citing the then ongoing investigations against the person who had appointed him to the top judiciary post, Park Geun-hye.

South Korea's acting justice minister Lee Chang-jae (Yonhap)

Lee's resignation offer came one day after the ministry launched an internal investigation against a ranking ministry official, Ahn Tae-geun, over providing what he earlier claimed to be cash bonuses to prosecutors who had questioned a former prosecutor and the former president's top aide for civil affairs, Woo Byung-woo.

The money, however, is widely considered kickbacks for their failure to have Woo detained.

The former chief secretary for civil affairs to Park currently faces a trial on several charges that include abuse of power. But he is one of a very few to face trial without physical detention in relation to the corruption scandal involving the former president and her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil.

Many believe the prosecution's failure to detain Woo may have been intentional.

Such suspicions have apparently prompted President Moon Jae-in to order a special investigation.

The justice ministry launched a 10-person team Thursday to investigate Ahn and others involved in the incident.

The state prosecutors' office has also set up a 12-person team to question its own officials, including Lee Young-ryeol, chief of the Seoul district prosecutors' office.

The investigation teams were said earlier to have demanded a written report from each and every person involved.

This combined photo shows Lee Young-ryeol, chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office (L) and Ahn Tae-geun, ranking official at the Ministry of Justice. The two offered to resign on May 18, 2017, one day after President Moon Jae-in ordered an inspection into allegations they inappropriately exchanged money. (Yonhap)

On Friday, the president sacked both Ahn and Lee from their current posts without accepting their resignations offered the previous day.

Ahn has been assigned to the district prosecutors' office in Daegu, while Lee has also been ordered to maintain his employment as a state prosecutor in the southern port city of Busan, according to Yoon Young-chan, the chief press secretary at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.

Removing them from their current positions without firing them clearly indicated a move to have them investigated and punished if necessary.

A Cheong Wa Dae official earlier noted their resignations could not and should not be accepted as long as they face internal investigations.

Partly confirming its own suspicions over the prosecution's failure to detain Woo, the presidential office named Yoon Seok-youl, a prosecutor who worked as a key investigator for an independent counsel team that looked into Park's corruption scandal as the new chief of the Seoul district prosecutors' office.

"I believe the most important issue to the prosecution right now is maintaining and continuing its investigation and prosecution of those involved in the influence-peddling scandal. And I decided (Yoon) was the best person to clearly carry out those duties," the president told a press conference.

The president has also named Park Kyun-taek, a prosecutor from the Supreme Prosecutors' Office, to replace Ahn as the director of prosecution at the justice ministry. (Yonhap)