SEOUL — President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea and his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, are both dog lovers. Still, they could not agree on how two dogs gifted to their country by North Korea should be cared for.
The animals, now orphaned, ended up in a zoo this month.
But the squabble between the two presidents goes beyond the fate of a pair of white Pungsans, a dog breed indigenous to North Korea. The dogs, named Songkang and Gomi, are the latest victims of an internecine battle between two leaders whose opposing views on issues ranging from North Korea to domestic health care have come to symbolize South Korea’s history of political gridlock.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, gave the dogs to Mr. Moon in 2018, when Mr. Moon visited Pyongyang for summit talks during a rare period of rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula. Last month, Mr. Moon gave up the dogs, saying that Mr. Yoon’s government didn’t want him to keep them. Mr. Yoon’s office denied those claims, saying discussions were underway to determine how to care for the dogs and who should pay for them, since they were technically the property of the South Korean government.
With no prospects for a quick agreement, the dogs were moved to a veterinary hospital for a temporary stay last month and then found a new home in a municipal zoo in the southern city of Gwangju last weekend.
The dispute between Mr. Moon and Mr. Yoon’s government runs deeper than what appears to be a petty financial rift over a couple of canines. The tiff over the two dogs’ custody is the most petty example of what is developing as an ugly political squabble between the two leaders and the rival political factions they represent.
In a recurring pattern in South Korea, a new administration has often tried to boost its political standing by tarnishing the legacy of its predecessor, ensnaring former officials with criminal investigations after they have left office.
Of the four former presidents who have governed the country in the past two decades, one — Roh Moo-hyun — killed himself while being investigated for possible corruption. Two — Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye — ended up in prison for corruption. All were put under investigation after leaving office and being targeted by their political enemies who took power.
Mr. Yoon has repeatedly vowed to probe wrongdoings that he said were committed by Mr. Moon’s administration. Mr. Moon and his liberal opposition, the Democratic Party, have accused Mr. Yoon of seeking “political revenge” to distract voters from his low approval ratings. What makes the Moon-Yoon fracas different from feuds of the past is that the two had been trusted allies in going after Mr. Lee and Ms. Park, and putting them in prison.
“Prosecutors must stop acting as hunting dogs for political power,” Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman of the Democratic Party, said last week. Mr. Yoon, he added, “must also stop exercising political revenge for the purpose of consolidating his support base.”
State prosecutors have already arrested Mr. Moon’s former defense minister and his former national security adviser on criminal charges. (A court later allowed the former defense minister to stay out of jail while he stood trial.) On Wednesday, prosecutors interrogated another former Moon official, the director of the National Intelligence Service, for possible criminal charges stemming from allegations that they mishandled cases involving North Korea. Those under investigation have accused prosecutors of politicizing national security issues on Mr. Yoon’s behalf.
“I sincerely hope that they will no longer drag the National Intelligence Service into the political scene,” Park Jie-won, the former spy chief under Mr. Moon, told reporters before presenting himself to prosecutors for questioning on Wednesday. Prosecutors have also indicted aides close to the Democratic Party’s new leader, Lee Jae-myung, on charges of collecting illegal campaign funds.
Mr. Moon once trusted Mr. Yoon enough to make him prosecutor general during his administration. The two men soon fell out over Mr. Moon’s efforts to curtail the power of prosecutors who have long been accused of meddling in politics. Mr. Yoon resigned from Mr. Moon’s government and then in March won the presidential election by a razor-thin margin as the candidate for the conservative People Power Party, defeating Mr. Lee.
As president, Mr. Yoon’s approval ratings have hovered around 30 percent after his administration was hit by a host of scandals involving cabinet appointees, presidential staff and his wife, Kim Keon-hee, as well as the recent Halloween crowd crush that killed more 150 people in Seoul.
Mr. Yoon’s office denies the investigations are politically motivated, saying that inquiries into Mr. Moon’s government were a matter of human rights and “national sovereignty.”
The investigations stemmed from a case in 2020, when a South Korean fisheries official went missing from his ship and was later found by the North in its waters. South Korea accused the North of killing the official and burning his body at sea. Its Defense Ministry and its coast guard announced at the time that the official, Lee Dae-joon, was suspected of trying to defect to the North.
But after Mr. Yoon took office, both agencies reversed their findings, saying that there had not been enough evidence to consider Mr. Lee a defector.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Moon’s former aides falsified documents and deleted intelligence reports, to help depict Mr. Lee as a defector in order to mitigate the backlash over his death and to minimize its impact on relations between the two Koreas. (Easing tensions with North Korea was one of Mr. Moon’s signature policy goals while Mr. Yoon has taken a more confrontational stance toward the North.) Mr. Moon’s former aides all denied the accusations and stood by their findings on Mr. Lee.
“At the time, it was impossible for our security agencies to nail down facts clearly, and they tried to figure out what happened as best as we could from all the available information and from the circumstances,” Mr. Moon said in a statement this month. “But after the change of governments, the agencies reversed their decision, although the information and circumstances remained the same.”
The fate of the two North Korean dogs, too, became an issue after Mr. Yoon won the election. By law, gifts to the president belong to the state. But the Presidential Archives, which was supposed to own the dogs, had no kennel. When he was president-elect, Mr. Yoon indicated his support for the idea that Mr. Moon should continue to care for the dogs in the best interest of the animals’ welfare.
On Mr. Moon’s last day in office, the Presidential Archives informally entrusted the dogs to him. But there were no subsequent efforts to make the transfer legally binding or to hash out financial and other support for the dogs. Mr. Moon blamed Mr. Yoon’s office for the delay.
“The presidential office seems negative about entrusting the Pungsan dogs to former President Moon,” Mr. Moon’s office said on Facebook last month. “If that’s the case, we can be cool about it,” it said, adding that it was left with no option but to hand the dogs back to the state, even though it pained Mr. Moon to part with the dogs he had raised for four years.
That left the dogs with no home, until the Presidential Archives arranged for the zoo in Gwangju to care for them. On Monday, the dogs, sporting name tags around their necks, were shown off to journalists and citizens at the zoo. “Gomi and Songgang are a symbol of peace and South-North Korean reconciliation and cooperation,” Gwangju Mayor Kang Gijung told reporters. “We will raise them well, like we cultivate a seed for peace.”