Cho is the new Choi
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
The fall of Cho Kuk — the controversial justice minister nominee — has been epic. Just a month ago, he rallied the masses to raise the “bamboo spear” against Japanese export curbs in full confidence as the unquestioned frontman of the Moon Jae-in administration. His every comment was closely watched as if he spoke for the president. His tweets and messages on social media stirred debates.
The progressive law professor who joined the liberal administration when Moon was elected president in May 2017 was elevated to justice minister nominee without any experience in court. It is a mystery how all the obvious double-dealings in his glamorous life — from her daughter’s schooling to his family school foundation and impressive wealth — went totally unchallenged in an allegedly tough screening process. As a senior Blue House secretary for civil affairs, he actually headed the office in charge of checking past records of candidates for high positions in the government.
Under the Moon administration, the post of special internal inspector has long been vacant. A special inspector in the Blue House in the past kept an eye on the president’s family members, chief of staff and other senior secretaries in the presidential office. Lee Seok-su — the special inspector under former President Park Geun-hye — discreetly probed Choi Soon-sil, who was Park’s trusted confidante with no official title. She ended up wielding enormous power through a myriad of channels, public and private, including foundations she allegedly created for the president. Inspector Lee clashed with Woo Byung-woo, Park’s senior secretary for civil affairs at the time. Without an inspector to watch over him, Cho might have enjoyed full freedom in commanding civil affairs on behalf of the president.
Cho — a symbolic figure representing the values championed by Moon — has leverage over reform, the key slogan of the Moon administration. This is why Cho makes himself out to be some kind of martyr against all the slings and arrows of outrages against him. When prosecutors began searching and raiding many offices connected to Cho and his family — and banned his family from leaving the country — he said he could not “leave his onus” as a crusader for reforms of the prosecution despite all the agony being heaped on himself and his family.
But he may have overrated himself, and his ambition, this time, may have been too high. He has been shunned by his peers and former pupils at Seoul National University (SNU). Prosecutors have been searching over 20 locations — including several universities and a graduate school his daughter was able to attend and the office of a private equity fund that his family put all their money into. The big investigation by the prosecution suggests he could become a criminal suspect at any time. If Cho nevertheless becomes justice minister, he could face investigations from the prosecution — an institution he oversees.
In his book “The Republic of Korea Asks Me,” President Moon lamented that justice has disappeared in Korea because the covert and illicit ways of building wealth and power have become commonplace. “The Park Geun-hye scandal was an extreme byproduct. We must show that anyone who profiteers and benefits through foul play and privileges could face judgment,” Moon wrote.
Core values are beliefs that cannot be replaced or bargained away. The Moon administration has pitched equality, fairness and justice as its core values. But the allegations about Cho have defied those values. It is baffling to see the ruling power choose to keep silence even as their core values are threatened. Has the government become so immune to crisis? Or is its resistant nature originating in the student movement days still at work? The powers that be may be underestimating public resentment. They forget that public outrage with Chung Yoo-ra’s special treatment triggered the candlelight vigils that eventually led to an impeachment movement against Park Geun-hye.
Former President Park was brought down because she ignored warnings about her arrogance, stubbornness and aloofness. She took Choi’s side despite repeated pleas to keep a distance from her. Park ignored cabinet ministers and kept to herself. She has been paying the price behind the bars for the tyranny and heedlessness she exhibited in office.
Moon is receiving very similar advice to dump Cho. If he does not pay heed to those warnings, Cho could become another Choi and bring down the president as well as the ruling power.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 30, Page 28
More in Columns
Room for alignment
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin