The Choo Mi-ae risk
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A parliamentary session last March at the Legislation and Judiciary Committee was Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s canary in the coal mine. Choo was utterly disrespectful of the main opposition United Future Party (UFP), the predecessor of the People Power Party (PPP), as they showered her with questions. She dodged many of them, tried to kill time by offering irrelevant replies, and at one point even admitted she was daydreaming. Choo’s arrogance left an indelible impression on many people.
The highlight of the legislative session came when former UFP Rep. Oh Shin-hwan berated Choo for unjustly ordering prosecutors to carry out a raid during a certain probe. Choo, apparently irked about the criticism, disdainfully crossed her arms for nearly 20 seconds. Choo, a former five-term lawmaker, should know what such body language meant. Some DP lawmakers of the committee reportedly gathered after the meeting and expressed concerns about Choo’s attitude.
Their concerns became reality. On July 27, during another session of the committee, Rep. Yoon Han-hong of the PPP asked Choo if the head of the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office had been promoted for his leading role in its questionable investigation into her son’s preferential treatment during military service. Choo immediately shot back, “You’re writing a novel!” The moment I saw her snobbishly crossing her arms in March, I had a strong feeling she was going to cause trouble some day and become a huge burden for the DP. Choo’s comment instantly morphed an issue that could have quietly passed by into the Cho Kuk scandal sequel.
Choo is well-known for her self-centered character. For instance, her longtime aides often complain about the way she made personnel decisions even without discussing with the working-level official in charge of human resources. They say Choo is the only person who could seek prosecutorial reforms by bypassing the opinions of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl.
The DP is now putting their utmost efforts into salvaging Choo, flanked by the Ministry of National Defense and the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission along the way, tarnishing their reputations. The ruling party is refusing to bend, claiming Choo’s son did not commit any illegalities. A sense of crisis is spreading within the DP, as lawmakers say they must not cave in as they did in the Cho Kuk scandal. One senior DP lawmaker told me, “We don’t have a choice. If we back down now, it’s the end for us.”
But why is the DP — which has 176 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly — betting their fate on Choo amid such a critical time when the country is battling against Covid-19? Had Choo lowered herself at the National Assembly and sincerely apologized for the allegations against her son when they first arose, the scandal would not have snowballed. At a time when the public is fed up with her high-handed attitude, the DP is only aggravating the situation by saying that Choo did not do anything wrong. Since when did the DP care so much about the law? The DP knows all too well what happens when political parties ignore public sentiment under the pretext of lawfulness.
DP Rep. Park Yong-jin — who often gets bombarded with angry text messages after criticizing his own party — said on Aug. 26 he was “sorry” about the allegations involving Choo’s son and that the party should “humbly handle” the situation because education and military service are two very sensitive issues in Korea. When I asked him why he apologized, he replied, “Prosecutors can decide whether or not any illegality was involved, and the Defense Ministry can look up the rules. But we are supposed to win the hearts of the people.” He said the party “must think whether it really makes sure it is not hurting the public’s feelings.” The lawmaker added that former liberal Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun could succeed as they were able to meet the eye-level of the general public. “That is the path that the DP must follow. Even if the party suffers an immediate loss, it must look toward the future.” Park made a logical and reasonable point — but I wonder why he is the only one from the party to make such a comment.
Considering the leadership style of President Moon Jae-in, a former lawyer, I doubt he will make any decisions on the Choo scandal for the time being. Even the two leading contenders for the next presidential election — DP Chairman Lee Nak-yon and Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung — are defending Choo. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said he was “embarrassed” by the scandal, but he will hardly go any further from there. Their reckless blindness to the issue is the very reason why trouble is in store for the DP and the country.