This file photo shows Lee Yong-gu, named as new vice justice minister, speaking to reporters on March 17. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in has tapped a judge-turned-lawyer as new vice justice minister, Cheong Wa Dae announced Wednesday, amid a simmering controversy over the ministry's move to punish South Korea's prosecution chief over alleged ethical lapses and other misdeeds.
The nomination of Lee Yong-gu, who served as a judge for more than 20 years, came just a day after Vice Justice Minister Koh Kee-young tendered his resignation in apparent protest against Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae's push for disciplinary action against Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl.
Koh is a key member of the ministry's disciplinary committee, which is scheduled to convene to discuss the matter Friday amid high public attention.
Lee is to assume the post Thursday, which would enable him to attend the panel's upcoming session.
Lee worked as deputy justice minister for legal affairs for two years and eight months, starting in August 2017. He was the first figure with no prosecution service background to be installed into the position. Lee then opened his own legal practice.
Cheong Wa Dae cited not only his legal expertise in but also his deep understanding of the ministry's affairs.
He is "expected to contribute to resolving pending issues, including the reform of the prosecution service, in a fair and neutral way, and stabilizing the organization," Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Kang Min-seok said in a statement.
In late November, the justice minister announced a decision to suspend the prosecution chief from his duty and seek punishment, saying her ministry had confirmed "multiple allegations of serious misconduct" by Yoon. Those include "illicit" inspections by state prosecutors of judges handling politically sensitive cases under Yoon's leadership, according to Choo, who was a judge and politician.
The yearlong rift between Choo and Yoon is viewed by many as connected to the Moon administration's prosecution reform drive spearheaded by the hardline minister.
On Tuesday, the Seoul Administrative Court approved a provisional injunction against the suspension of Yoon's job, effectively allowing him to return to work.
The court said removing him from duty is tantamount to dismissing him, given that he has a two-year tenure. The suspension is also contrary to the purpose of the relevant law to protect the independence and political neutrality of the prosecution service, the court added. (Yonhap)