[News analysis] The month-long controversy behind Moon’s decision to appoint Cho Kuk

Posted on : 2019-09-10 17:10 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Why are the South Korean public and political parties so roiled by the new justice minister?
South Korean President Moon Jae-in officially appoints Justice Minister Cho Kuk at the Blue House on Sept. 9. (Blue House photo pool)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in officially appoints Justice Minister Cho Kuk at the Blue House on Sept. 9. (Blue House photo pool)

After South Korean President Moon Jae-in nominated Cho Kuk, formerly his senior secretary for civil affairs, to be the justice minister on Aug. 9, Korean society was plunged into what amounted to a political and psychological civil affair. After an intense debate, Moon formally appointed Cho to the position on Sept. 9, but it’s uncertain how long the aftershocks will last, or how intense they will be.

A professor at the law school of Seoul National University, Cho was the first senior secretary for civil affairs in the Moon administration, which proudly regards itself as carrying on the torch ignited by the 2015 candlelit protests. Cho had been selected as the ideal person to carry out prosecutorial reform, one of the long-cherished goals of Moon and his supporters; as senior secretary for civil affairs, Cho drafted plans for the reform, and he was nominated to lead the Ministry of Justice in order to carry them out.

While heading to the office of the hearing preparatory team on the day that Moon announced his cabinet reshuffle, Cho vowed “before the mountains and the oceans” (quoting a poem by famous admiral Yi Sun-sin) that he would “carry out his mission of innovation at the Ministry of Justice, prosecutorial reform, and the establishment of a fair legal order.”

In a Facebook post introducing himself, Cho used the phrase “the dialectic of academic studies and engagement.” He thus expressed his ambition to dedicate himself to practical matters, including social reform, while quashing accusations that he was just another “polifessor,” a professor who neglects teaching responsibilities in the pursuit of political advancement.

After the National Assembly was asked to hold a hearing for Cho, the opposition party and the press got busy digging up dirt on the nominee. Soon a range of allegations had been raised, some touching on Cho’s past membership in the South Korean Socialist Coalition of Workers (Sanomaeng) and others related to a private equity fund and his daughter’s questionable admissions into undergraduate and graduate programs.

Public opinion started to shift against Cho as the controversy over his daughter spread. The public mood soured as reports surfaced that his daughter had been listed as the primary author on a paper printed in a medical journal while she was still in high school and that she’d received scholarships while attending an environmental graduate program at Seoul National University (SNU) and the Pusan National University (PNU) School of Medicine.

Considering that Cho was a well-known advocate of “justice” and “fairness,” the news that his daughter had gotten into top schools through means unavailable to ordinary people caused the youth to turn against him and motivated college students to organize candlelit protests. Along the way, the causes that Cho had advanced on social media — the causes that had made his career — came back to haunt him.

With the South Korean public roiled by the Cho controversy, the ruling and opposition parties were so intensely at odds that they couldn’t even finalize a date for his hearing. Then on Aug. 27, South Korea’s public prosecutors raided some 20 sites around the country, including SNU and PNU, to look into allegations surrounding the nominee.

While the political parties eventually agreed to hold a hearing on Sept. 2-3, they couldn’t reach an understanding about which witnesses to select. When the planned hearing fell through, the ruling Democratic Party arranged a press conference for Cho at the National Assembly on Sept. 2 that lasted for 10 hours and 40 minutes.

Just when it seemed as if the justice minister would be appointed without a hearing, which would have been unheard of, the two sides agreed to hold a hearing on Sept. 6, the deadline for submitting the hearing report to the Blue House. Thus, Cho finally had a chance to stand before lawmakers. During his closing remarks, Cho admitted to being “insensitive to the issues of inequality and the transmission of wealth” because he’d been “born and raised in a privileged class” and continued to “belong to a privileged class.”

When the hearing was about to conclude, the prosecutors indicted Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-sim, a professor at Dongyang University, on charges of forging documents without calling her in for questioning even once beforehand.

After returning from a tour of three countries in Southeast Asia on Sept. 6, Moon mulled over his options for several days, before at last opting to appoint Cho on the morning of Sept. 9. “The president had never before heard so many opinions about a single issue,” said Kang Ki-jung, the presidential senior secretary for political affairs.

By Lee Wan, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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