How far can Cho Kuk fall?
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
There was a time when I was obsessed with Twitter and Facebook. During the past conservative administration, I followed popular opinion leaders like Cho Kuk, current presidential senior secretary for civil affairs, and Chin Jung-kwon, a professor at Dongyang University. Both were well-known figures in the world of progressive politics who criticized basically everything and everyone.
I’d spend every morning scanning their posts in the subway on my way to work. It was a helpful way to learn about different perspectives within a short period. On top of that, I wanted to learn what those opinion leaders, who were fervently endorsed by many young supporters, thought and said in their everyday lives.
At times, I felt uncomfortable reading their expletive-laden online posts attacking people who didn’t seem to have done anything wrong. But over the years, I’ve learned quite a few things. I especially learned more about people’s higher ethical standards for the authorities as I watched them cheer for Cho’s sharp criticism and strict standards for high-level officials in the conservative administration.
When I read his announcement on social media one day that he had been chosen to serve as President Moon Jae-in’s senior secretary for civil affairs, I thought it was a novel choice, not because the position was given to a professor instead of a prosecutor, like in past administrations, but because Cho seemed like someone who was intent on communicating with the people, unlike his prosecutor predecessors who had no talent in seeing eye-to-eye with the general public.
In light of the fact that Cho often denounced wealthy and powerful people, no matter how they amassed their fortune — calling them rich land owners from Gangnam District who were born in Gyeongsang, graduated from Korea University and went to Somang Presbyterian Church — I imagined he would be in tune with the public when he verified the quality of high-level government officials, unlike past conservative administrations that were criticized for being a “rich people’s government.”
However, it didn’t take long for such anticipation to fizzle out. He was shaky from the beginning, and to this day, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that none of the people he verified fitted the standards he himself raised in the past.
Cho Dae-yop, who was nominated for minister of employment and labor early on in the Moon administration, had a record of drunk driving, which was supposed to automatically disqualify him because it was one of the seven major rules the Moon Blue House announced for excluding candidates. Yet he passed Cho Kuk’s screening and was nominated, though he later decided to voluntarily step down.
When former President Park Geun-hye tapped Lee Cheol-seong, who had a record of drunk driving, to be commissioner of the National Police Agency, Cho Kuk excoriated Park’s decision and said that a confirmation hearing wouldn’t even have been held if we were in the United States. With the labor minister nominee in the Moon Jae-in administration, Cho said it was “a different situation” from Lee’s because the nominee, who, at the time, was a professor at Korea University, told police officers when he was caught driving under the influence of alcohol that he was a professor.
False resident registration is another one of the Moon Blue House’s seven major rules for tapping high-level government officials. In a 2010 column that ran in the progressive newspaper Hankyoreh, Cho slammed nominees tapped by Park who committed the transgression, saying that by nominating them, the Park Blue House was putting a dagger in the hearts of people who wanted to move to an area with top-tier schools or get into those schools, but couldn’t because they didn’t have the right connections.
However, there are so many minister-nominees verified by Cho who were found to have faked their addresses, it’s hard to even name all of them. Foreign Affairs Minister Kang Kyung-wha was the first to be caught during her confirmation hearing, then came Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae. Perhaps because they cleared the way, Moon Seong-hyeok, who was found to have used fake addresses three times in one month, was appointed minister of oceans and fisheries.
And what about Park Young-sun, minister of SMEs and startups, who the Blue House announced was a “verified” nominee who was tapped “to produce achievements the public can personally feel” mid-way into the Moon government?
When Park attended confirmation hearings as a lawmaker in the past conservative administrations, she was best known for requesting colossal amounts of documents from Blue House nominees. In 2009, during a hearing for former President Lee Myung-bak’s nominee for prosecutor general, Chun Sung-gwan, Park asked Chun for a detailed statement of the financial incomes of not only his wife but also all of his lineal ascendants and descendants, saying if he wanted to clear any misunderstandings, he should submit the papers.
In 2012, during a confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice-nominee Kim Byung-hwa, Park claimed she could explain how she increased her fortune from the moment she was employed at MBC in 1982.
But when it was her turn to explain her wealth during a recent hearing after she was nominated as minister of SMEs and startups, Park failed to do so. When she was accused of having someone else pay for her 300 million won ($263,800) home interior construction fees and asked to submit her bank account transfer history, she refused, saying she “can’t understand” why opposition lawmakers were asking for personal information.
Rewind to 2009 during the hearing for Justice Minister-nominee Lee Kwi-nam, Park is the one who told him that it was wrong to think he could get away with not submitting documents and that he’d eventually be forced to send the papers.
The finishing touch to Cho’s botched verification procedures was finally made when Moon tapped Lee Mi-sun as justice nominee for the Constitutional Court. She claimed all her stock investments were made by her husband, and her husband, who’s close to Cho, seems to have consulted with the Blue House in giving lengthy explanations on his Facebook on why he and Lee were innocent. For the first time in Korean history, we soon might see an “avatar justice” in the Constitutional Court.
Yet, after all this ruckus, I wonder whether it’s even worth the stress. One relief would be that the entire country now knows the true side of Cho, who’s doing so poorly at verifying Moon’s nominees after pretending to be so ethically superior when he pointed fingers at other people during past administrations. Cho, thank you for showing us your true side. We didn’t even have to ask for it.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 19, Page 29