By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's culture ministry apologized on Monday for a blacklist of artists which excluded them from government support, admitting there was a systematic effort to sideline critics of scandal-plagued President Park Geun-hye.
The apology was the clearest admission yet of the blacklist of cultural and media figures critical of the impeached leader that has led to the arrests of her former chief of staff and the culture minister at the weekend for abuse of power.
"It is distressing and shameful that the ministry, which should have been the bulwark for freedom of artistic expression and creativity, has caused questions of fairness in assisting culture and arts with a list of artists to be excluded from public support," Vice Culture Minister Song Soo-keun said.
The blacklist, part of which was seen by Reuters, contains the names of thousands of actors, writers, film directors and others.
It includes acclaimed film directors like Cannes award winner Park Chan-wook, Venice Film Festival top prize winner Kim Ki-duk and actors Moon So-ri and Song Gang-ho. None was immediately available for comment.
Faced with a political crisis earlier in her term, the government and state entities used the blacklist as "guidelines" to penalize artists and censor content, a special prosecutor's office investigating an influence-peddling scandal said last week.
Park's former chief of staff, Kim Ki-choon, and Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun, who was the first sitting cabinet member ever to be arrested before she resigned from her post at the weekend, are charged with abuse of power and perjury.
Both have denied the existence of the list, or in playing a role in drawing it up, although Cho later said she had heard of such a list
The presidential Blue House has also denied that a blacklist exists.
Park was impeached by parliament in December after accusations that she colluded with long-time friend Choi Soon-sil to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations set up to back the president’s policy initiatives.
The special prosecutor's office said on Monday it planned to investigate other conglomerates after finishing its probe of Samsung Group [SAGR.UL], the largest, whose leader has been named a suspect in the graft scandal surrounding Park.
Prosecution office spokesman Lee Kyu-chul did not elaborate on when the investigation into Samsung may end or what other conglomerates the office planned to investigate.
Lee also said the office may question more Samsung officials, but it was not clear whether he meant those who already had been called for questioning.
Park, 64, remains in office but has been stripped of her powers while the Constitutional Court decides whether to uphold the impeachment.
Park has been accused by legal authorities and lawmakers of putting pressure on the entertainment industry in retaliation for satirical and other attacks, echoing the dark days of oppression under her father, dictator Park Chung-hee.
Yoo Jin-ryong, who was the first culture minister under Park, spoke out last year about the existence of the blacklist and pressure from the presidential office to remove senior officials singled out as being uncooperative.
(Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)