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‘Ex-chief of think tank stepped down due to pressure from presidential office’

An opposition lawmaker disclosed a recording on Monday substantiating allegations that the presidential office pressured a former chief of a state-run think tank to step down in January last year.

In the four-minute recording of a Jan. 12, 2018, telephone conversation between Sohn Ki-woong, then chief of the Korea Institute for National Unification, and an official at the Prime Minister’s Office, the latter says that they “receive notifications from the office of the senior presidential secretary on personnel affairs.”

Rep. Kang Hyo-sang of the Liberty Korea Party (Yonhap)
Rep. Kang Hyo-sang of the Liberty Korea Party (Yonhap)

Rep. Kang Hyo-sang of the Liberty Korea Party disclosed the recording at the National Assembly after the Prime Minister’s Office denied in a press release on Monday a news report that its office for government policy coordination contacted Sohn to urge him to resign.

Sohn, 60, said in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper that the Moon Jae-in administration had repeatedly attempted to make him leave his post. He supported his claims with text messages he had exchanged with an official from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Sohn took office as the chief of the research center in March 2017, when then-Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn was serving as acting president following the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye. Hwang was elected Liberty Korea Party chief last month. Shortly after he assumed office, rumors spread that he would soon be replaced by Kim Yeon-chul, then a professor at Inje University. President Moon Jae-in was elected to the office in May 2017.

Sohn was then excluded from the Unification Ministry’s reunification policy advisory committee, where the think tank’s chief sits as an ex officio member, and came under inspection in November 2017, according to Sohn.

Sohn said an official at the Prime Minister’s Office told him in early January 2018 that the presidential office had decided to remove him, and that “it came out in a bundle in November,” but “Sohn’s came in December.”

Sohn said he understood “it” to be a list of people to be removed from their posts.

Sohn stepped down in January last year after stroking staff members’ heads in the elevator after a year-end gathering in December 2017.

He was succeeded by Kim Yeon-chul, who led the think tank until he was recently nominated to the unification minister post.

Sohn’s story adds to the controversy over a former environment minister who allegedly abused her power by forcing those critical of the incumbent administration to leave their posts.

A Seoul court on Tuesday refused a prosecution request for a warrant to arrest Kim Eun-kyung, who led the Ministry of Environment from 2017 to 2018, on charges that she abused her authority.

Several former top officials from the Park Geun-hye administration are standing trial on similar charges for allegedly “blacklisting” left-leaning artists and TV celebrities to keep them out of the mainstream media.

By Kim So-hyun (