The ghost of Cho Kuk

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The ghost of Cho Kuk

Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


First-term lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) held a forum after the crushing defeats in the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan. Young people at the forum contended that the DP could have faced candlelight vigil protests if not for the Covid-19 epidemic. The public outrage they were referring to was triggered by the controversy over former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. Their collective disillusionment over fairness and justice under the Moon Jae-in administration led to the Yoon Seok-youl phenomenon, making the former prosecutor general who stood up to the administration a leading presidential candidate.

The main opposition People’s Power Party (PPP) apologized for corruption by its former member, impeached president Park Geun-hye. Its members paid their respects at the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju and tried to dilute their previous image as extreme rightists. In this year’s memorial service for the victims of a crackdown on democracy activists in the city in 1980, two PPP lawmakers — Reps. Chung Woon-chun and Sung Il-jong — were invited for the first time. Gwangju citizens, who bear bitterness against the conservative party, welcomed them after former PPP leader Kim Chong-in knelt before an altar and apologized for the violent crackdown on the democracy movement over three decades ago. When political novices in the DP raised fault-finding questions about the Cho Kuk scandal, they were bombarded with critical texts from die-hard supporters of President Moon. Allowing an unremorseful party to extend its governing power cannot be just.

Cho epitomizes the so-called 586 generation — born in the 1960s, spent their college days fighting the military regime in the 1980s, and now in their 50s. They mostly favor engagement of North Korea, friendliness with China and hostility to the United States and Japan as a result of their struggle against the U.S.-backed military regime and its anti-communist rightist stance. Cho favored a public uprising against Japanese bullying and stirred up anti-Japanese sentiment when Tokyo imposed curbs on Korea-bound exports of key materials for chipmaking. The student activist generation is stuck in an outdated mindset.

A century ago, many Americans envied the political and social changes after the formation of the Soviet Union led by the Bolsheviks. In 1927, a decade after the Russian Revolution, a group of scholars, journalists and union representatives visited the Soviet Union and met with revolutionary leaders Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. They were awed by the Soviet experiment. Economic critic Stuart Chase, who was part of the American delegation, argued for the United States’ divorce from the free market model and expressed confidence in the ability of a state-planned system to solve many economic problems in America.

Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936), a progressive journalist who toured the country in a revolutionary transition stage three year earlier, famously said, “I have seen the future and it works.” In his excitement over Soviet society, he expressed wishes to spend his graying years watching the sun rise in the new world. After returning home, delegates were welcomed by social clubs in Chicago and Manhattan. The New York Times published articles on the Soviets almost every day.

Prof. Rexford Tugwell (1891-1979), an economist from Columbia University, and Prof. Paul Douglas (1892-1976) of the University of Chicago, were recruited as members of a “brain trust” to devise policy recommendations for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. As undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture in 1934, Tugwell imported a Soviet-style collective farming program to resettle farmers for low-rent farms under close supervision. Time magazine chose him as its person of the year.

To push the country out of the Great Depression, Roosevelt took radical steps that would enlarge the government’s role. Tugwell’s leftist perspective and experience played a big part. At the same time, Roosevelt appointed Joseph Kennedy — the patriarch of the rich Kennedy family — as the first chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The father of President John F. Kennedy became a bank chief in his 20s and made big money through bond investment.

Although the media worried that Roosevelt was leaving the hen house in the hands of a fox, the president was sure he fit the position best as he knew all the tricks behind stock investment. In just 18 months under Kennedy, the SEC discovered and filed charges on hundreds of irregularities. He is credited with placing the U.S.’s finances under the law.

President Moon often named Roosevelt as his role model. But the two are quite different. Roosevelt pursued a progressive national overhaul to help “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” build new hope. He did not waver even as he incessantly had to fight the top federal court over the unconstitutional nature of his policies and kept on with “fireside chats’ to explain to the public in plain-spoken language his New Deal projects through the medium of radio. As a result, Roosevelt was reelected four times, helping overcome the Great Depression and win the Second World War. Thanks to him, the United States became the strongest nation in the world.

Moon argues that keeping jobs is the key to overcoming our challenges. But the so-called Korean New Deal is nothing but a heavy government spending program to create jobs. He kept to his “brain trust” of 586 generation figures with narrow perspectives. When Cho — the emblem of the 586 generation — came under pressure to resign from his nomination as justice minister due to a string of scandals related to his family, he refused to do so as he “was not alone.” Are President Moon and Cho still one?

The saving Cho campaign has led to the launch of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) to protect Cho and other Moon allies from prosecution investigation. But the CIO went astray as soon as it set sail. The first investigation it launched was against Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon over alleged preferential hiring. The case only confirms the suspicion that the essence of Moon’s prosecution reforms was to block investigation of corruption by his own associates.

The downfall of the Moon administration started when the ruling front abandoned justice and fairness to defend former Justice Minister Cho. Cho later apologized for “causing pain to many people and young people who did not have access to the same laws and systems.” Cho overlooked the fact that following laws and systems led to sustaining his vested power. He was only making excuses.

The people have been hoodwinked. The Cho Kuk scandal is not over. If the government does not truly reflect on it, it could pay a dear price.
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