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Cho Kuk is the Man of the Year

Dec 30,2019
LEE GA-YOUNG
The author is the head of the national team at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Cho Kuk should be the Man of the Year, given the number of mentions of his name in the media and from the mouths of Koreans of all corners of society. The entire population was forced to witness the epic fall of one of the most powerful figures in the Moon Jae-in administration. Cho entered the Blue House with the president as his senior secretary for civil affairs and ended his political career as the country’s shortest-serving justice minister. As soon as he stepped down, he came under a prosecutorial probe and trial, although avoiding a pretrial arrest.

The ramifications of the fall of an iconic progressive figure are huge. Cho’s downfall triggered disillusionment about the generation of student activists behind the democracy movements in the 1980s after they have become part of the political mainstream.

Cho cannot be free from the case of his suspicious suspension of the corruption inspection into former vice Busan mayor Yoo Jae-soo and the allegation about the presidential office’s meddling in the Ulsan mayoral election, as he had been the head of the civil affairs office. None of these would have happened if Cho had done his duty honestly.

Ironically, the ruling front managed to stay undisturbed by the fiasco over Cho. It pressed ahead with prosecutorial reforms. After Cho’s family came under frenzied media spotlight, the government mandated a ban on disclosing indictment details. The prosecution office even stopped regular press briefings and reporters were prohibited from directly contacting prosecutors.

The scandal over preferential treatment of the children of Cho also ended up bringing about massive changes in the education system. After Cho’s daughter came under fire for favoritism in the process of getting into an elite university and medical school, President Moon Jae-in ordered changes to the college admissions system to require top schools to reduce the share of early admissions and instead accept a greater portion of students based on their one-time state exam. Elite high schools also were eliminated. Parents and students were confounded by the sudden changes. The prices of apartments in neighborhoods known for good schools in Seoul shot up. The reform on private school foundations also stemmed from Cho’s scandal. Cho’s mother, brother and wife dominated the board of a private school foundation that his father had taken over.

Cho visited his wife at a detention center on the Christmas Eve before he faced a court hearing for deliberations on his arrest warrant. The year 2019 was a nightmare for Cho. The changes he caused also made this year unforgettable for the rest of us.