(ATTN: UPDATES with reactions in paras 9-14)
SEOUL, Nov. 11 (Yonhap) -- Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl has surpassed political heavyweights from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) to rank top in the latest popularity poll of prospective presidential candidates released Wednesday.
According to a survey of 1,022 people 18 years and older by pollster Hangil Research & Consulting, 24.7 percent said they support Yoon as South Korea's next president.
Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the Democratic Party, ranked second with 22.2 percent, while Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, also affiliated with the party, came next with an approval rate of 18.4 percent, the poll said.
It is the first time that Yoon has topped the list of prospective presidential candidates in polls.
The poll, conducted nationwide from Saturday to Monday at the request of local media Kukinews, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points with a confidence level of 95 percent.
Yoon has never declared political ambitions, though he said recently he will think about how to serve Korean society and people after his term ends. The 59-year-old Yoon's two-year term as the top prosecutor ends in July next year. Some commentators interpreted his remarks as leaving room for a possible entry into politics. The nation's next presidential election is slated for March 2022.
Yoon has been cheered by his supporters for his straightforward remarks on key contentious issues.
During last month's parliamentary audit broadcast live nationwide, Yoon said Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae's decision to take over his investigative command authority in a high-profile financial scandal was illegal and absurd. Yoon also declared that he is not a subordinate of the justice minister.
Later on Wednesday, Choo doubled down on her attack on Yoon during a parliamentary session. She called for Yoon's resignation, accusing him of breaking the duty of political neutrality as top prosecutor.
"Now that he ascended to the top today, he should rather resign and do politics," Choo told a parliamentary committee.
Some ruling party members were critical of the minister's growing feud with Yoon.
"(Choo) mounted an unnecessary fight only resulting in raising the profile of Yoon Seok-youl. The agenda of prosecution reforms has now vanished, and it changed into a bout between the whole prosecution and the governing bloc," a DP official said.
The leader of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) welcomed Yoon's rise, saying it reflects the people's disenchantment with the Moon Jae-in administration.
"Think how Prosecutor General Yoon, who is not a politician, became No. 1. It shows how frustrated the people are," Kim Chong-in, the interim chief of the conservative party, said.
The popularity rates of leading presidential hopefuls from the opposition camp were all in the single digits, with the fourth-ranked independent lawmaker Hong Joon-pyo earning a mere 5.6 percent, according to the Hangil poll.
Ahn Cheol-soo, chairman of the minor People's Party, garnered 4.2 percent, trailed by Rep. Sim Sang-jung, former leader of the minor Justice Party, with 3.4 percent, it said.
The pollster noted Yoon was more favored by conservatives than liberals.
The preference for Yoon was strongest among supporters of the main opposition PPP, with 62 percent of them rooting for him. About 32 percent of People's Party supporters chose Yoon as their favorite future leader, while the corresponding rate among non-partisan respondents was 23.7 percent.
By contrast, only 13.9 percent of Justice Party supporters and 4.8 percent of Democratic Party supporters favored Yoon. Nearly half of Democratic Party supporters, 47.4 percent, endorsed Chairman Lee as their favorite next president.
By region, Yoon's approval rate was strongest at 33.8 percent in the central provinces of Chungcheong, where his home town is located, compared with 30.4 percent in Busan and neighboring southeastern regions and 27.3 percent in Daegu and surrounding areas. In the southwestern provinces of Jeolla, he was supported by only 7.3 percent.
In Seoul, the support rate for the top prosecutor was 22 percent.
By age, 31.8 percent of respondents in their 60s supported Yoon, compared with 25.5 percent for people in their 20s, 19.6 percent for people in their 30s and 18.4 percent for people in their 40s.
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