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Conflicts with minister further pushes top prosecutor's popularity as presidential hopeful

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Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl arrives at the Supreme Prosecutors' Office in Seoul, Wednesday. / Yonhap
Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl arrives at the Supreme Prosecutors' Office in Seoul, Wednesday. / Yonhap

By Kang Seung-woo

Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl's popularity as a potential presidential candidate is expected to rise further after a court injunction granted Tuesday put a temporary stop to Justice Minster Choo Mi-ae's attempt to have him suspended. The ruling was the latest development in the drawn-out power struggle between the two.

However, his emergence as a favored presidential candidate may be bittersweet for the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), which welcomes the growing antipathy toward the incumbent government in the power struggle, but is also seeing its own presidential hopefuls outshone by Yoon.

The prosecutor general has been considered as a potential presidential candidate among those supporting the opposition parties and centrist voters who are disappointed at the Moon Jae-in administration because of his noncompliance with arbitrary orders from the ruling authority. He has been in conflict with Choo over prosecutorial reform, one of Moon's key policy goals, for months.

On Tuesday, the Seoul Administrative Court accepted Yoon's request to temporarily halt Choo's order to suspend him from duty. The court said the suspension was tantamount to dismissing him and damaging to the prosecution's independence. Last week, the justice minister suspended the prosecutor general from duty and requested a disciplinary committee meeting to rule on his alleged breaching of ethical and legal standards.

The legal decision, regarded as a huge win for Yoon against the government and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) that have pressured him to step down, could be a driving force for Yoon in presidential polls, although he has not yet declared a bid.

In fact, a public survey by polling company RnSearch found, Wednesday, Yoon was the most favored presidential candidate over the DPK's two heavyweights, party Chairman Rep. Lee Nak-yon and Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, although his lead was within the margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Yoo received support of 24.5 percent, followed by the DPK chairman with 22.5 percent and the governor with 19.1 percent. Yoon's number was up 9.1 percentage points from the previous month.

With Yoon clearing one hurdle, he still faces an uncertain future, as the ministry will convene a seven-member disciplinary committee meeting Friday.

Even if the committee decides to dismiss Yoon, the heaviest in the five levels of punishment, the decision would likely rally those who stand against the Moon administration and support the opposition, which would help further raise his popularity.

In the wake of Yoon's rise, the PPP seems to have begun to try and keep him in check.

Despite welcoming the court ruling that has brought Yoon back to work, PPP floor leader Rep. Joo Ho-young said, Wednesday, the top prosecutor should announce that he will not enter politics.

"His declaration that he will not begin a political career will pave the way for the independence of the prosecution," Joo said in a radio interview.

Furthermore, the five-term lawmaker claimed that presidential candidate polls should exclude him in their surveys because it is not proper to put the incumbent prosecutor general, who must remain neutral, in the candidate group.

"It is necessary to remove Yoon from the list," Joo said.

In addition, the legitimacy of Yoon's potential candidacy for the conservative opposition bloc is also in question as he has led investigations into corruption scandals involving former Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, both of whom belonged to predecessors of the PPP.

Kang Seung-woo

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