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The Cho mess

Oct 10,2019
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Lee Chul-ho
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Pro-Moon Jae-in forces are spinning the Cho Kuk scandal as “a tragedy caused by the media.” They claim the press is sabotaging Justice Minister Cho and his family with baseless reporting. But journalists are well aware of the truths behind the mushrooming scandal. One proof was when the Journalists Association of Korea chose reporters from the Hankook Ilbo and the Dong-A Ilbo as the recipients of “This Month’s Reporter Award” on Sept. 24. The Hankook Ilbo was the first to report on how Cho’s daughter received scholarships from Pusan National University’s medical school despite flunking two semesters. A day after that article was published, the Dong-A Ilbo broke the news that Cho’s daughter was listed as the first author of a medical research paper after a two-week internship when she was a high school student. The articles were formally acknowledged as scoops — no different from 2016 when JTBC was awarded for finding a tablet PC during the “Choi Soon-sil-gate” scandal.

Chants of “Arrest Cho Kuk!” and “Save Cho Kuk!” clash on the streets. By the standards of Korean sentiment, however, Minister Cho has already been found guilty. A comment below a recent columnist read, “We’re not asking for much. We just want to respect public officials and their families for being a bit more honest than us and for knowing how to act with good conscience and when to feel ashamed of themselves. But now, we’re living in a weird era in which the government is provoking the public.” This comment indicates how the public has been gravely disappointed at the prerogatives and illegalities of Cho’s family.

Liberal newspapers are keener than conservative newspapers in analyzing the pro-Cho demonstrations in Seocho District, southern Seoul. They say that supporters of President Moon Jae-in and his ruling Democratic Party — who feel jittery about their political situation yet refrain from expressing their opinions because they are so disappointed by the ethical lapses of Cho — have started to take action as the government started to push prosecution reforms. Liberal papers also say that those supporters are taking to the streets out of a sense of crisis. In other words, President Moon could face a brutal aftermath if his supporters lose the battle against the conservatives. Liberal newspapers also cautioned that if pro-Cho demonstrators demand the protection of Cho and prosecutorial reforms at the same time, it could hinder the government from cutting back on the powers of the prosecution.

It is naive to think that the prosecution is fighting against the Blue House. Just three months ago, a column in a liberal newspaper read, “The head of the Justice Ministry’s Prosecution Bureau and the chief of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office’s Anticorruption Department had been dispatched to work in the Roh Moo-hyun Blue House in the early 2000s.” There are rumors in Seocho District that the two senior prosecutors often brag about their high ranks within the prosecution with remarks such as “I am the only prosecutor who went to President Roh Moo-hyun’s funeral,” and, “It was really tough for me to investigate the Sewol ferry accident [due to pressure from the government] but my hard work paid off and I’m now sitting in this position.” They became senior prosecutors. The only difference between them and the Blue House can be found in the extent of probing the Cho family.

Asking why as many as 20 prosecutors from the mighty special investigation department have been assigned to investigate a single family is meaningless. Instead, we should ask why there are so many corruption allegations against Cho’s family, which requires that many prosecutors, and why his family members escape to a foreign country and destroy evidence by changing their computer hard drives, for instance.

It does not make sense for the Blue House to shout for prosecution reforms at this time — after two years of enjoying its honeymoon with prosecutors as they eradicated so-called deep-rooted social evils attributed to former conservative administrations. Shortly after the Cho Kuk scandal broke out, the presidential office — and the ruling Democratic Party — launched a massive campaign to reform the law enforcement agency.

A former prosecutor general who has ties with current Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl said Yoon tends to recklessly defy unfair orders from the top, but accepts reasonable requests from his junior prosecutors. Yoon has reportedly started investigations of Cho after his aides in the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office suggested a probe of Cho’s family. “I think Prosecutor General Yoon thinks of the investigation as his last responsibility as a prosecutor,” the source said.

The Blue House is of the position that it would wait and see how the judicial proceedings go. But the public is increasingly exhausted and frustrated from watching the Cho scandal for two months. Moon should first fire Cho and then launch prosecutorial reforms.

Moon’s statecraft is also in urgent need of some restoration. His political leadership has withered along with his approval rating, which was down to 32.4 percent in a recent Korea Research poll, the lowest since he took office in May 2017. After watching two massive rallies split between liberals and conservatives last week, Moon said that does not mean a division of public opinion. Instead it suggests a desperate need for prosecution reforms.

There is a speech Moon needs to reference. At the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Barack Obama, who at the time was an Illinois state senator, said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.” He added, “There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” That speech embraced the patriotism of the Republicans.

The late Republican Senator John McCain, who ran against Obama in the 2008 presidential election, also gave people food for thought. When a woman told McCain during a rally that she could not trust Obama because “he’s an Arab,” McCain took the microphone from her and promptly replied, “No ma’am. No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”