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Moon’s last chance

Oct 22,2019
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Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Cho Kuk has stepped down as justice minister, but the story isn’t over. President Moon Jae-in praised him for “having brought about consensus on the desperate need to reform the prosecution.” There was no apology for having made an appointment so bad that it shook the country for two months. Moon then demanded the media look back on themselves and reform their own practices. He also summoned senior officials of the Justice Ministry, who once attempted to exclude Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl from the investigation into Cho and his family, and demanded speedy reform of the prosecution. Moon blamed the media and the prosecution for everything.

It seems to be a case of so-called cognitive dissonance. A series of suspected crimes committed by Cho’s family were revealed, and President Moon himself was the one who appointed such an unfit person. But he could not admit to any wrongdoing. It may make him feel comfortable if he justifies the entire situation as the outcome of media’s “fake reports” based on leaked information from the prosecution. That was probably why he added media as a subject of reforms.

Was the crisis over Cho really triggered by fake news? The trigger of the public outrage was the credit for a medical research paper that Cho’s daughter received when she was a high school student. The Dong-A Ilbo investigated the story exclusively, without information from the prosecution. Journalist Hwang Seong-ho, who broke the story, said Cho’s daughter’s Internet posting gave him his first clue. In the posting, the daughter wrote, “I was able to list my name as an author after an internship at Dankook University Medical School’s medical science research institute.” The report was true and the Korea Society of Pathologists later canceled the paper. What part of this is fake news?

Of course, some of the reports over the past two months might be untrue or biased. But it is unfair to attack the entire press. Journalists are the protectors of the public interest, fighting bravely in a world where private interests are promoted. They are exceptional beings who risk their lives to check facts.

It was in 1993, during the Kim Young-sam administration, that the verification of high government officials’ assets became a routine part of the vetting process for top officials. That year, the JoongAng Ilbo reported on the wealth of top officials. Including a politician who later become the president, the report laid bare illegal acts committed by three lawmakers at the time. The journalists used unprecedented methods to verify investments and possible real estate speculation by checking every registered property and asset published in the government gazette.

Other media jointed the race to scrutinize the power elite. Based on the media scrutiny, the National Assembly speaker, Supreme Court chief justice, ministers, vice ministers, senior prosecutors and police chief stepped down. I was the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s metro and crime news department at the time and oversaw the newspaper’s entire investigation. No one in the newspaper intervened. It was a risky investigation that could have invited lawsuits. Work was tough and there were many sleepless nights. But reporters tried to get to the bottom of an important story. And they succeeded.

President Kim Young-sam was completely different from Moon. Kim accepted the resignation letters from the officials under suspicion. A public ethics principle was established that corrupt officials won’t be given titles to serve the country. The approval rating of Kim, who was capable of understanding public sentiments, went over 90 percent.

I recently met Bob Woodward, an associate editor of the Washington Post who broke the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. At the age of 74, he said he still wonders every morning when he wakes up what the evil are hiding. I smiled in agreement. Journalists are simple beings who are just searching for truth.

As contrasted with President Kim, President Moon is blaming the media for the Cho problem. Is it okay for Moon to dismiss the press just because they are not convenient to him? When the function of the press is weakened, the people will suffer. Thomas Jefferson — the third president of the United States who drafted the Declaration of Independence — famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Attempts to weaken the press mean an attempt to avoid democracy.

The Moon administration is seriously insensitive to public sentiment. I have not heard of any official who risked his post to give straight advice to the president against Cho since the scandal broke. How can this be different from a gangster’s sense of justice?

A group chat room of an alumni organization of student activists lost about half its members because they got sick of trying to defend Cho. Even the liberals are feeling fed up with the administration and the ruling party. But no one is taking responsibility. It’s no wonder that Cho applied to return to Seoul National University to teach again, just 22 minutes after Moon accepted his resignation.

“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to,” Mark Twain said. He means that man is the only ethical being that feels shame. Moon should issue a sincere apology to the people, even if it’s belated. If an administration is hated this much, how can it run the country?
Moon has shown himself in the past to be an exceptional politician. Unless he wants to collapse here and lose it all, he must make a bold decision to remove all his liberal cronies who led him down this path. Instead of demanding reform of the prosecution and media, Moon should order a truly thorough investigation of Cho and his family and hold them accountable under the law. He must stop all attempts to interfere or delay the investigation. Article 11 of our Constitution says, “All citizens shall be equal before the law.” Moon must prove it. Only then can he stop the public rage from boiling over.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 21, Page 31