Inside Yoon Seok-youl: From prosecutor general to main opposition party nominee

Posted on : 2021-11-08 17:34 KST Modified on : 2021-11-09 10:16 KST
As a prosecutor, Yoon built a reputation for himself as a maverick with a steely will — but in his rise as a politician, he has thus far fallen short of expectations he encouraged as a prosecutor
People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Seok-youl heads to the stage during the party’s second national convention, held at the Kim Koo Museum and Library on Friday. (National Assembly pool photo)
People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Seok-youl heads to the stage during the party’s second national convention, held at the Kim Koo Museum and Library on Friday. (National Assembly pool photo)

As the People Power Party (PPP) presidential nominee, Yoon Seok-youl has gone from being prosecutor general for the Moon Jae-in administration to the candidate for the main opposition party.

Having earned himself a reputation as a prosecutor who “stands up to the administration” during the Park Geun-hye presidency, Yoon has now made an asset of his history of butting heads with the same administration that kept him on as prosecutor general — transforming himself into a politician who is now endeavoring to knock the Democratic Party out of power.

Growing up affluent as the son of two professors, Yoon matriculated in law at Seoul National University, passing the bar exam in 1991 after nine attempts.

He began his career as a prosecutor in 1994 with the Daegu District Prosecutors’ Office. Eight years later, he tendered his resignation and went to work at a large law firm, only to return to work as a prosecutor after a year. His explanation is that the smell of black bean noodles in the elevator of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) awakened his nostalgia for the times he used to pull all-nighters while conducting investigations.

He was subsequently assigned to key positions as director of the SPO central investigation department’s first division and head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office’s first special investigations department. In April of 2013 — the first year of the Park Geun-hye presidency — he was tapped by then-Prosecutor General Chae Dong-wook as special investigation team leader for the National Intelligence Service (NIS) election interference case.

“It was fate,” he later said of the investigation.

After Chae’s departure, Yoon pushed ahead with the NIS case over objections from the prosecution leadership. He later spoke publicly about outside pressure on the investigation, declaring at an October 2013 parliamentary audit that he was “not loyal to people.” His remarks cemented a public image as a prosecutor with a steely will.

Sidelined with minor work after a demotion to the High Prosecutors’ Office, he made a comeback in the later stages of the Park administration when he joined a special prosecutor’s team investigating government influence-peddling in December 2016.

Taking on a vanguard role in the Moon administration’s investigations to “eradicate deep-rooted vices,” he soared through the ranks with promotions to director of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, and then prosecutor general.

But his honeymoon with the Moon administration ended shortly after his appointment with his August 2019 investigation of the family of Cho Kuk, then a nominee to serve as Minister of Justice. Ironically, Yoon’s fierce confrontations with later Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae would help to build his political stature.

When asked in an October 2020 parliamentary audit of the SPO whether he planned to “participate in politics,” Yoon replied, “I intend to give thought to how I might serve our society and public once I have retired.” Critics accused him of crossing the line with his remarks, which seemed to hint at plans for a political career.

He went on to become the first prosecutor general in the history of the Republic of Korea’s Constitution to be subject to disciplinary action. He became a lightning rod for conservative and anti-Moon opinion; the idea that prosecutors general should abstain from politics even after they step down fell by the wayside amid the zeal to evict the Democratic Party from power.

After abruptly resigning as prosecutor general in March of this year, he officially threw his hat in the ring for the presidency on June 29. But as a politician, Yoon has thus far fallen short of the expectations that he encouraged as a prosecutor.

Despite drawing criticism for various gaffes that have laid bare the paucity of his governance philosophy, the hopes for a new administration that have been projected on him eventually turned him into the PPP’s presidential candidate. Within four months of launching his political career, he has taken over an opposition party with a tradition dating back 40 years.

By Lim Jae-woo, staff reporter

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