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Goodbye, Cho

Sept 19,2019
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Lee Chul-ho
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Liberals are trying to dismiss the Cho Kuk scandals as a conflict between generations or between classes. But both interpretations obscure the essence of the issue. The key point is the fact that President Moon Jae-in appointed the wrong man to lead the Ministry of Justice. The Cho family used all kinds of backhanded ways to help Cho’s daughter get into medical school. The fact that those actions were the exact opposite of all the sugarcoated sentiments Cho uploaded on social media instantly made him the man Koreans loved to hate. The scandal seems to have crossed a point of no return.

Our society is boiling with anger because Cho lied, and lied big time. The claims and excuses he made during his self-organized press conference and a National Assembly confirmation hearing are turning out to be false as prosecutors dig into a plethora of allegations against him and his family. Cho argued that his daughter did not cite a medical research paper for which she was wrongly credited as first author in her application to Korea University.

That’s false. It turns out that that research paper was registered as one of her submissions to the school. Cho said his wife, a professor at Dongyang University, brought her office computer home because she needed to use it for work. But prosecutors found out that she got help from a worker at a securities firm to change her computer hard disk — and even hard disks of computers in her residence. Cho seems to think he can get away with lying as long as his goal is justified — just like in the 1980s, when he was a pro-democracy activist at Seoul National University. His reasoning is shameless.

Those who unwisely stuck their necks out to defend Cho were dealt serious political injuries. Two top officials at the Justice Ministry attempted to exclude Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl from the prosecution’s ongoing probe of Cho, but had to play it down by saying that was their “personal idea” when the attempt instantly came under attack by the public and opposition lawmakers. Rhyu Si-min, chairman of the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation, said he was “joking” to the president of Dongyang University when he called and pressured him not to speak out about Cho’s wife’s shenanigans.

The Justice Ministry also had to back down from an earlier plan to draw up tougher guidelines on press reports about investigations of suspects before indictments. The ministry explained that it was simply a draft. They all tried to help a figure who lacks legitimacy, but in vain. Such blatant attempts to sabotage investigations did not exist during our dark years of military dictatorship. The former democracy activists tried to fight against a monster, but became a monster themselves. Whatever policy Cho rolls out to reform the prosecution will only invite doubt from the public, which has lost all trust in him.

The reddest flag in the Cho scandal is a comment President Moon Jae-in made when he appointed Cho justice minister. Moon said he would be setting “a bad precedent” if he did not appoint Cho “just because of unconfirmed suspicions.” In other words, Moon has set a good precedent by appointing a person whose transgressions have yet to be confirmed. Korea has had an unwritten law that if a minister-nominee turns out to have committed an immoral act that goes against the social norm, his or her nomination is withdrawn — even if that act is not illegal. But Moon’s appointment is the same as declaring there’s no need to hold a confirmation hearing on his picks or have them go through any other form of verification procedure.

The biggest worry is that even if Cho is indicted with physical detention, he may stay behind bars for two years or more waiting for a Supreme Court ruling while maintaining his authority for personnel affairs over the prosecution and prosecution reforms thanks to the State Public Officials Act. Article 69 of the act states that civil servants can continue their work unless they receive a jail term. What a comic situation it is.

No movie better described the difference between democracy and dictatorship than “Almost Che” (2012). A line in the Korean movie goes, “If many people do whatever they want to, it’s democracy. But if only one person does whatever he or she wants to, that’s dictatorship!” An MBC poll conducted over the Chuseok holidays showed 36 percent of the people approved of Cho as justice minister while 57 percent did not. If so, does that mean Moon is working in a democracy or dictatorship? Moon and Justice Minister Cho may both be former democracy fighters, but today, they certainly are not democrats.

The Cho scandal has caused a retrogression in Korea’s democracy. Three years ago, our society was disappointed at conservatives after the outbreak of “Choi Soon-sil-gate” and President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. Now, the society is witnessing the bad side of the liberals. A large part of Park’s election victory was due to the tragic deaths of her father, former President Park Chung Hee, and his wife, first lady Yuk Young-soo. In the same context, Moon’s presidential election owes much to the tragic death of former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, his political mentor. Perhaps Korea is paying a heavy social cost for a better democracy between the right and the left. I look forward to the day when we can all seriously discuss democracy and leadership from ground zero — without any sense of indebtedness to anyone.

The first thing to handle now is Cho. In 2015, when Moon was chairman of the main opposition party, he said of President Park’s nomination of Lee Wan-koo as prime minister that “the public wants a prime minister that befits our national prestige” and that Lee’s nomination should be decided by a national poll. He was a politician who suggested betting the prime minister’s fate on a survey. It is an infuriating thing that the entire society is boiling over a minor figure from the so-called Gangnam left, a kind of caviar leftist. Now is the time for Cho to step down.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 18, Page 31