The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
There’s an old saying that goes, “Solve the problems you yourself created.” This sums up how the Moon Jae-in administration is approaching the mushrooming controversy over allegations that Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s son received preferential treatment during his military service. The Moon government is hoping Choo addresses her own scandal by personally responding to the torrent of questions raised by the local media and opposition parties. It is a lesson learned from her predecessor, Cho Kuk, who was also enmeshed in a scandal before stepping down.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and Blue House are aware that the Choo scandal has provoked an angry backlash from young Koreans in their 20s and 30s about the offspring of political bigwigs enjoying special privileges, as seen in the Cho scandal. They think the allegations over Choo’s son help lower Moon’s approval rating. DP Rep. Cho Eung-cheon’s remarks last week saying that he felt “extremely uncomfortable” about the arrogant way Choo took questions at the National Assembly from lawmakers last week suggests how moderate DP members perceive the justice minister now.
It’s a big burden on the Moon administration to have an incumbent minister’s family member caught in the crossfire of prosecutors. One source who spoke on the condition of anonymity told me that Blue House officials were trying to get to the bottom of the case as quickly as possible to minimize the impact. That could be translated into an attempt to not repeat the mistakes they made in the Cho scandal.
The presidential office also seems to know that a number of DP lawmakers — including Supreme Council member Kim Jong-min and senior Rep. Sul Hoon — are not helping the administration by making public statements backing Choo. The Blue House believes that its comments only exacerbate public sentiment. Unlike in the Cho scandal, the Blue House has been keeping distance from Choo.
So, how would the Blue House handle the scandal? The office could be considering her resignation as the best option to solve the case, though it probably would not directly ask Choo to step down. Some DP officials have been talking about replacing Choo since last month when several high-level prosecutors were reshuffled — and after the prosecution’s investigation, for instance, into the Blue House’s alleged intervention in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election — the Moon administration’s Achilles’ heel — is nearly over.
The establishment of an extraordinary law enforcement agency devoted to investigating high-level government officials, including judges and prosecutors, also can proceed without Choo’s help now that nearly all obstacles have been removed.
There are rumors in the prosecution that the Blue House communicates directly with Lee Seong-yun, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, after bypassing Choo now.
The Blue House thinks Choo would not bow out so easily given her volatile character in the past. After all, Choo is preparing for next year’s Seoul mayoral by-election. Choo may have underscored the need for former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook to be pardoned and her bribery conviction to be reinvestigated because of Choo’s unstoppable desire to get nominated for the Seoul mayoral election. Choo knows better than anyone else that the scandal involving her son could shatter her chance at becoming Seoul mayor — and ultimately crush her political career.
At the same time, the Blue House should admit that Choo played a key role in taming Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and his allies in the prosecution, who had been locking horns with the administration since the Cho scandal. A prosecutor who described Yoon as “macho” told me that the real reason Yoon is not confronting Choo’s obstinate demeanor is that he does not want to give the impression that he is “fighting a woman.”
The Blue House and DP leadership have tentatively decided to wait until prosecutors finish their probe into the Choo scandal, but with the Chuseok holidays coming up, chances are high that prosecutors will speed through the process. The kernel of the issue is how Choo interfered in extending her son’s sick leave. If prosecutors find any illegality in the procedure, the Blue House will decide her fate according to the law. Choo and the Blue House, who have both called for prosecutorial reforms on the grounds that prosecutors were interfering in politics, are once again repeating the vicious cycle of betting their fate on prosecutors.