It is the latest embarrassment for the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol, whose People Power Party faces a battle to win a majority in parliament elections next month, after it chose an envoy to Australia ensnared in a graft inquiry.

Yoon has accepted the resignation of the senior secretary for social affairs, Hwang Sang-moo, his office said in a brief statement on Wednesday, without giving a reason for the departure.

Reuters could not immediately trace contacts for the official to seek comment.

Hwang has been in a storm of controversy after media reported last week a comment about the 1988 incident, in which two military officers used a sashimi knife to attack a journalist who had written columns critical of the government.

The comment, made at a luncheon with the presidential press corps, was apparently directed at a reporter for broadcaster MBC TV, media said.

"MBC, you listen carefully," MBC TV quoted Hwang as saying before he talked about the stabbing. Hwang subsequently said he was joking, MBC reported, and he later apologised.

The opposition party and even some members of Yoon's ruling party had called for Hwang's dismissal for what some saw as a tacit threat against reporters critical of the government.

"The presidential office has never exercised coercion or exerted pressure against media representatives over any specific issues and it will never do so," Yoon's office said in a statement this week.

South Korea has a history of media censorship, which was particularly harsh during administrations led by former military officers from the 1960s to the 1990s.

This week Yoon is hosting a U.S.-backed Summit for Democracy, whose agenda features the role of a free press in promoting democracy.

An analysis by Voice of America in December found that his government and political allies pursued defamation cases in 11 instances of coverage during his first 18 months in office, versus four cases in five years under his predecessor.

The conflict between Yoon's office and MBC stemmed from a hot mic incident in 2022 when he was caught making insulting remarks at an event in New York.

Media initially reported the comments as referring to the U.S. Congress and President Joe Biden but Yoon's office said he was talking about South Korea's parliament.

Later Yoon's office banned MBC reporters from boarding a presidential plane on one of his official foreign trips.

In a rare case, the government took MBC to court last year, winning an order for the broadcaster to issue a correction of the hot mic report.

Last year Reporters Without Borders urged Yoon to reverse discriminatory measures against MBC and resume daily meetings with the press that had been indefinitely suspended.

(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Josh Smith and Clarence Fernandez)

By Jack Kim