SEOUL: A bid by South Korea's government to increase police oversight has sparked a protest by some officers, which drew criticism on Monday (Jul 25) from a top minister who referred to the role the security forces played in the past to support authoritarian rule.
The dispute comes as a new conservative government is settling in and trying to limit the impact of some changes made by the previous liberal government, including the sharing of powers and responsibilities between the police and prosecutors.
Nearly 50 chiefs of police stations from across the country met on Saturday, with 150 joining online, in a protest against a government plan to create an interior ministry bureau to oversee police affairs.
Interior Minister Lee Sang-min criticised the officers for defying a warning from the national police chief against the meeting.
"Police have physical and legal force and can even possess weapons," Lee told a news conference.
"It is extremely dangerous that these groups who are capable of arming themselves gather arbitrarily, in defiance of orders from their superiors, and protest government measures."
Lee referred to a group of elite military commanders behind a 1979 coup in which dictator Chun Doo-hwan seized power before launching a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests during his eight-year rule.
But the minister added: "Of course, many years have passed and plotting a coup is unimaginable."
South Korean police and prosecutors have a decades-old rivalry that developed as South Korea emerged from the war in the 1950s and later endured periods of harsh military rule before establishing democracy.
Many dictators used the police to suppress democracy movements while prosecutors have had an important role in levying criminal charges against former leaders.
The new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, is a former prosecutor-general who aims to tighten the government's grip on the police.
Ryu Sam-young, the police official who called the Saturday protest meeting, reiterated on Monday that an existing public-private panel to oversee the police should be reinforced, instead of the proposed new ministry bureau, the Yonhap news agency reported.
Responding to the interior mister's reference to a coup, Ryu said he had gone "too far".
Calls to Ryu's office went unanswered.
The dispute comes as Yoon's approval ratings plunged to about 33 per cent in a Realmeter poll released on Monday, from 54 per cent in late May shortly after taking office, amid inflation and economic worries and controversy over the employment of aides' relatives in the presidential office.
Lee later told parliament the planned bureau would focus on administrative tasks and would have no legal authority to meddle in police investigations. He said police officers broke the law by disobeying orders not to attend the protest meeting.
Some previous governments have criticised the national prosecutors' office as too politically powerful and have sought to divide its authority to investigate matters and indict offenders, provoking opposition from prosecutors.
Yoon himself was forced to step down from the role of chief prosecutor last year after resisting a push by then President Moon Jae-in to rein in prosecutors, which police supported.
Yoon, asked about the police protest, said the interior ministry and the national police agency would take "necessary steps". He did not elaborate.
Tension over the dispute could escalate as lower-level police officers plan a protest meeting this weekend.