Defending the secretary

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Defending the secretary

An individual’s life is as valuable as those of the people protesting en masse in our streets every Saturday night. I bring up former senior presidential secretary for economic affairs Cho Won-dong today to make this point. Facing the press as he arrived at the prosecution office for questioning, he ducked his head, murmuring that he was ashamed and anguished. I kept silent even though I knew what he meant by shame and agony. I felt I would place myself in a hot seat if I attempted to defend him. But I could not keep mum any longer when the judge who turned down his arrest warrant came under fire. Should truth become a victim if it does not serve to bring justice to President Park Geun-hye and her friend Choi Soon-sil?

Cho was a workaholic. He did not change much over the last 20 years. His eyes would brighten only when he talked of work. He was favored as prodigy by major economic figures like Kang Bong-kyun, Kwon Oh-kyu, and Lee Hun-jai. He was not much of a politician.

Former Financial Services Commissions head Chin Dong-soo said Cho could have gone far if he only had some political skills. Such credentials do not build up over a day.

He cannot easily argue with his bosses. He would deliver whatever was demanded of him. That is why he sometimes did things that were thought impossible. The first tax code revision under the Park administration was one example. A tax code reflects the philosophy of the administration. Park wanted better welfare without raising taxes. He fixed the year-end settlements for salary-makers by changing the deductions from income to tax credit. It was an ingenious way to secure more tax revenue for social welfare by collecting more taxes from the rich without upping the tax rate. The tax code revision plan was scrapped in a few days, but his idea is still regarded highly by many.

He is not, however, entirely obedient. He would speak his mind if he believed an order to be ill-directed or misjudged. He is said to have opposed vehemently the choice of Hong Ki-taek as the head of the state-run Korea Development Bank. He protested that a scholar without any management experience should not head a bank spearheading restructuring of the troubled shipping and shipbuilding sector. Cho reportedly advised Hong to turn down the offer. Hong is his high school senior and had been close to him. When Hong did not listen to him and the president pushed ahead with the appointment, he wrote a lengthy letter to the president listing why Hong should not be seated in the position.
But Hong ended up as the chairman of the bank. And we all know what had happened afterwards. Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering went deeper into debt and ended up committing accounting fraud under the negligent oversight of the state bank.

I remember Cho on the phone conversing with the president for lengthy periods. He proposed that controversial issues like granting a casino license to Yeongjong Island in Incheon should be put to public debate. He may not have noticed the shadowy presence of Choi behind the president.

Cho was indicted for attempting abuse of power. His indictment was unrelated to Choi. But he goes on the same criminal list as the clan of Choi. He claimed that it was CJ Group that called first, not him, about its vice chair Lee Mie-kyung. He said he tried to mediate because he feared CJ would be damaged. But CJ taped the conversation and pressured the Blue House.

CJ said it felt the presidential office was making a threat. It could be right. The court will decide. Cho is an avid proponent of deregulation and laissez-faire. It wouldn’t be surprising, however, if he had not once attempted to strong-arm a company. Most of the veteran bureaucrats have been trained under dictatorial rule and a rigid top-down command system. He may have gotten himself into the CJ affair out of bureaucratic habit. His fall from grace may be due to his failure to separate himself from the old ways of the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee.

The people power on the streets are not so mighty as to quench all the evils of the past. We are engraving the scarlet letters “Choi” onto everyone who was near the president. We may be ruining some good men in the process of cleaning up the mess. But for now, no one is stepping forward to claim Cho as one of them.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 1, Page 38

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Yi Jung-jae
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