Seoul, South Korea - South Korea's culture minister apologized Monday for the conservative government's blacklisting of thousands of artists for their political beliefs, as critics said the attempt to muzzle critics was the worst for decades.
The list of over 9,000 artists in film, theater, music and literature came to light late last year when a number of local media outlets published it.
Many on the list had voiced support for opposition parties, or criticized or satirized the administration of now-impeached President Park Geun-Hye or past army dictatorships.
The list reads like a Who's Who of Seoul's arts scene. It includes novelist Han Kang, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and "Oldboy" film director Park Chan-Wook, who won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004.
"I... apologise over the pain and suffering caused to the artists banned from state support because of their political or ideological leanings," Culture Minister Cho Yoon-Sun told a parliamentary hearing.
Cultural officials were ordered to stop offering state aid to the plays, films or other projects involving "left-leaning" artists on the list.
"I deeply apologise for letting the controversial blacklist cause so much pain and disappointment among the public," she said.
Cho, culture minister since last September, is accused of playing a key role in creating the list while serving as Park's adviser in political affairs from 2014-2015.
Cho has denied the accusations, saying she had not been aware of the list until recently.
A former culture minister who is Cho's predecessor has been quizzed by prosecutors, who are seeking to arrest him and other former senior officials accused of compiling the list.
"We believe that the list, aimed at ruling out certain artists from state support, seriously damaged the public's freedom of expression," said a spokesman for the special prosecutors' team investigating the wide-ranging scandal surrounding President Park.
"Those who made the list and carried out its orders will be held accountable sternly," Lee Kyu-Chul told reporters.
The prosecutors are expected to quiz Cho and a former presidential chief of staff who is accused of leading the project to create the list with Park's approval.
The blacklist sparked fury among local artists and opposition party lawmakers, with many describing it as reminiscent of Seoul's 1960s-80s army-backed rule -- when the news, arts and entertainment were heavily consored.
"The list dialled back our history to the 1970s...based on an anachronistic and unconstitutional way of thinking," the main opposition Democratic Party said in a recent statement, likening it to "21st century McCarthism".
Park, daughter of late army-backed dictator Park Chung-Hee who ruled with an iron fist from 1961-1979, was impeached by parliment last month over a major influence-peddling scandal.
She is accused of colluding with her secret confidante Choi Soon-Sil to extract tens of millions of dollars from local firms and letting Choi meddle in a wide range of state affairs.
The Constitutional Court is reviewing the validity of the impeachment bill. If it affirms the move, a presidential election must be held within two months.