A torment for the people
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Money, power and reputation — generally, you cannot have all three. They have contradictions. If they are bundled up, they are bound to clash and can even lead to disaster. They constitute a so-called trilemma. Yet Cho Kuk, justice minister nominee, has aimed to achieve exactly that — and he went further. He aspired to hand down the three crowns to his children. If not for his ambition to be justice minister, the illegalities and irregularities he committed might have been an eternal secret. The skeletons have tumbled out of the closet, which may be tragic for him and his family but is a relief to the country. It is fortunate that the country has come to know his self-righteousness and that of the mainstream liberals.
Confucius said that those seeking small gains cannot achieve big things. According to the ancient sage, Cho is not fit for a big role. His life trajectory speaks otherwise. He has long chosen the way of riches. He has built wealth through exotic and unusual means. During a financial crisis two decades ago, he acquired an apartment in Gangnam district 35 percent below the market price through an auction. In those days, few thought of purchasing forfeited houses. He assumed a beachside apartment in Haeundae, Busan, from his uncle through a provisional registration claim — a means used mostly to hide properties or evade court seizure.
He reported his wealth at 5.48 billion won ($4.5 million) as of the end of 2018. The market value of his home and property, however, is at least 7 billion won, according to real estate experts. He did not receive any inheritance. His father died in 2013, leaving debt worth 4.2 billion won and bank savings of 21 won. He could not have built up so much wealth solely through his teacher’s salary. He might have preached reform and progressive work. But his heart and head had to chase money.
His greed for riches did not stop even after he came to the Blue House as senior presidential secretary for civil affairs. He created a family private equity fund and put 1.05 billion won into it. It is unimaginable for a fund to place all its money in a small company whose earnings totally relied on state procurements, a trader at a brokerage house said. “It cannot be normal to invest that much money in a single company.” Private equity funds (PEF) available at securities companies are usually offered in names of promising start-ups, real estate investment trusts, or mezzanine funds tracking listed companies. If a government employee, who is banned from direct stock investment, wished to make a fund investment, he or she could have chosen one from thousands of such PEFs.
There can be only two reasons why he parked money in an exclusive fund for his family. It would have offered either higher returns or advantages in inheritance. Or it could have been both. As soon as the fund acquired a street light technology company in August 2017, President Moon Jae-in mentioned a smart road system in an address. In February, Moon went out to see how it works. A retired senior government official said each government office competes to have mentions of their projects in presidential addresses. The work can get impetus after the president has referred to it. The official said someone might have helped the president mention the smart road system in his address. Whose idea it was could be a smoking gun, he said. The people behind the controversial equity fund have all gone abroad. Prosecutors suspect they have fled the country. But money leaves traces.
Cho won’t be able to weather the blows. The president should have some pity on him. Still, neither Cho nor the president is expected to give up. Mayhem at the legislative hearing is foreseeable. We will see endless excuses, hollow apologies, pleas and denials. Even if he ends up as justice minister, could he get respect? Does he really believe he can push through reforms under such circumstances? The Cho episode is a torment for the people.