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The Gangnam liberal

Aug 24,2019
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Justice minister nominee Cho Kuk speaks to reporters on his way to work Tuesday morning. [YONHAP]
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Koh Dae-hoon
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

The disgrace of Cho Kuk, nominee for justice minister, is beyond a personal tragedy. He has brought down the left of Gangnam – a district in southern Seoul and home to the haves in Korea. The ultra-liberal from an elite background is teetering towards his doom. He has set himself apart from the traditional concept of a leftist in Korea.

Cho is a hybrid of the Gangnam class with an elite education and wealth, yet with proletarian ideology. Living in one of the richest neighborhood of Seocheo District in Gangnam, he has had the best education in Korea and the United States with law degrees from Seoul National University (SNU) and UC Berkley.

He has taught at SNU and owns reported assets of 5.6 billion won ($4.6 million). Yet he is proud of having served in prison for violating the National Security Law, placing him in the democracy movement lineage. He wowed the young with his sophisticated articulation of the progressive movement, which set him apart from the rough ways of the first or second generations of student activists.

His progressive vision was impressive. He criticized the hypocrisy of being “politically liberal and conservative in actuality” and argued for “fair competition to break up the caste-like hierarchic society.” He lectured against “voluntary surrender to the rules of the jungle” and indulgence in mammonism. He helped to change the two-faced image of the leftist elite. He drew a group of followers in the movement against the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism and liberals empathetic to the socially vulnerable and less privileged.

But his vision eventually crashed as a delusion. He was actually not very different from the black-and-white ideologues of the anti-military regime movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The rigid early generation of liberals did not achieve much, aside from fighting the authoritarian regime. Under the slogan of democracy, the liberals attacked the industrialization forces as “mainstream conservatives” and were entirely engrossed with taking over the governing power.

Cho was a critic of the dichotomous labeling of the early generation of liberals. In his book “Self-reflecting Liberals,” he said that liberals who championed an outdated dichotomy of democratic and anti-democratic or nationalistic and anti-nationalistic are “reactionary and impotent leftists.”

But he used the same old-fashioned labels such as “Chinilpa,” a derogatory term referring to collaborators with the Japanese during the colonial period. A person was “Chinilpa” if he or she disagreed with the government’s dealings with the Japanese government over export curbs or Supreme Court rulings on wartime forced labor. He portrayed himself as a patriotic liberal for his outspokenness against neo-pro-Japanese forces.

Still, few doubted his morality. We did not think him a hypocritical pseudo-liberal. He had been a vocal critic of liberal elites who accused others of real estate speculation while owning multiple homes, who advised others against living in rich Gangnam while they live there themselves and who sent kids to elite schools while demanding equality in education.

“The progressive must stay on the side of the weak and poor. Our society lacks channels to move up. It is outrageous and brutal that one’s life course is defined by the family one is born into,” he wrote in an essay. All were lies.

The theater of the absurd in which he starred is grotesque. The scheming family behind a 7 billion won private equity fund, wealth inheritance, feigned divorce, a suspicious real estate deal and pampering his daughter with all kinds of special treatment in the course of her higher education has caused an acute sense of betrayal. Cho wrote “the essence of democracy is rejection of privileges and respect of human beings.” It is appalling to discover how double-faced he was.

Yet he stayed self-righteous despite a cataract of revelations about himself and his very acquisitive clan. He did not spare the crocodile tears, of course. Few hypocrites can resist them. He vowed to fight “bogus news” and do his utmost to reform society. He may believe the president will appoint him if he survives the confirmation hearing session. He may think all will pass once he becomes justice minister.

In one of his book, Cho quoted Audrey Hepburn’s famous remark, “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible!’” Nothing ends until it ends, he added. But that’s “fatal conceit” to borrow the words of Friedrich Hayek from the “Errors of Socialism.” It is a sad sight to watch the presidential office and ruling party desperately defend Cho by portraying his family as victims of fake news. If this is the world the liberal government has promised us — a “just nation without foul play or privileges” — I would prefer to live elsewhere.

Some say this is the true face of the leftist in Gangnam. Gangnam liberals are now stigmatized as opportunists and hypocrites. But the left can live in the south (Gangnam) as the right can live in the north (Ganbuk). All societies must have right and left. Cho has given the Gangnam leftists a bad name. Kang Jun-man, a professor at Chonbuk National University, called liberals who are out of touch with public sentiment because of self-righteousness and feelings of superiority plain old “phonies.” Cho Kuk cannot be pardoned.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 23, Page 31