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Lessons from Cho

Oct 21,2019
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Yang Sun-hee
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Sunday.

From the moment President Moon Jae-in named Cho Kuk as his justice minister to the day Cho resigned from the post, the past two months have been a nightmare. Yet they also taught us valuable lessons. Like they say, every cloud has a silver lining.

The first lesson we learned is the possibility of “power-related corruption” and how the Cho family creatively ran a family business.

Koreans are highly sensitive about power-related corruption; that’s how former President Park Geun-hye, who was considered untouchable when she was in the Blue House, got impeached. She fiddled with state coffers and forced conglomerate owners to cough up cash — a classic form of power-related corruption, yet an outdated one that dates back to the years when military men ruled the country. With the advent of civilian governments, there became a “club business” custom in which the president’s family members and acquaintances did business amongst each other. That’s why everyone kept their antennas up to see whether powerful figures, their families and acquaintances were on to anything.

So the entire country was shocked in 2016 when it turned out President Park was using an old trick. Cho’s power-related corruption was a whole new “family business” path, unlike the “fundraising” path and “club business” path we’ve seen before.

The second lesson we learned from the former justice minister is how to create an environment of publicly raising issue with something we consider unfair and discussing that problem out in the open. Such was the case with Cho’s daughter and her admissions allegations. What surprised us more than the fact that her Dongyang University presidential award was fabricated was how she was able to get that fabricated award in the first place after only a couple of hours of volunteer work. Her example empowered us to speak up about the unfairness of college admissions procedures, something that had been simmering deep within us for some time.

It’s also worthy to point out that Cho’s daughter allowed us to think for ourselves whether the current college admission process helps us raise our future generation. Students at Korea’s elite “SKY” universities — Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University — are starting to feel guilty for taking advantage of their parents for an easy way through life and feeling like they share the blame as an accomplice. It’s not right for our society’s pre-elite groups to feel doubtful about themselves or for others to question their qualifications. It’s the adults who should pave the way to a fairer society.

Our third lesson from Cho is that we witnessed how materialistic and hypocritical our society’s elite is. We’ve clearly seen it all — how a liberal intellectual became a star by criticizing other people’s ethical lapses, only to be revealed to have lived a life of abusing privileges and demanding special treatment. That seems to be the truce face of progressive critics and politicians who gained fame by chastising others while highlighting their own moral superiority. On the other hand, we also have the inefficient conservatives, who cannot even propose a single developmental agenda and spend their time shaving their heads and filing complaints with the prosecution for their political gains. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to have members of the public punish any acts of high-profile figures blindly arguing for the political gains of their ideological faction and carry out some kind of a social movement awakening righteousness and self-control?

Over the past two months dealing with Cho, we realized the power of ethos. Long ago in Greece, when a person with a bad reputation tried to say something useful to the public, he was forced to give the floor to another person with a good reputation so that the message could be conveyed through him. That’s because the ethos of Greece, at the time, was that a person who’s not trusted by society carries no strength in his words, and if he tries to send a good message across nonetheless, it could actually backfire. The process of verifying minister nominees through parliamentary confirmation hearings is a process of verifying whether those candidates fall in line with the social ethos. President Moon’s biggest mistake is that he underestimated the power of ethos. Even if Cho realized prosecutorial reform, it could all have been reversed. The chaos of the past two months was caused by an irrational decision by Moon and his ruling Democratic Party, which supported it.

The whole commotion is over. It’s now up to prosecutors to dig into the allegations about the Cho family. For the public, it’s time to focus on the economy and prevent it from falling deeper into a quagmire as the government denies deflation, even if it definitely feels like it’s upon us. Last but not least, we must raise our guard against those seeking political gain by taking advantage of this time of social disorder, and by that, leave a lesson to our next generation.