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Justice minister nominee steeling for fierce hearing

Aug 17,2019
Controversy is brewing over justice minister nominee Cho Kuk’s wealth as conservative lawmakers prepare to pummel the former presidential aide in his upcoming confirmation hearing.

The date of the hearing hasn’t been set yet, but by law, the National Assembly has until Aug. 30 to wrap up the session, meaning Cho will likely be called to answer questions within the next two weeks.

Minister-nominees in Korea are subject to non-binding confirmation hearings conducted by the National Assembly before their formal appointment, a brutal process during which they often have to endure vicious assaults on their reputations from opposition lawmakers.

By law, the president doesn’t need endorsement from the National Assembly to appoint ministers, meaning President Moon Jae-in can go ahead and appoint Cho even without the blessing of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP).

Yet the LKP is widely expected to go harder on Cho than it’s ever done before given the nominee, who until early this month served as the president’s senior secretary for civil affairs, is at the forefront of the Moon administration’s campaign to reform powerful law enforcement authorities, which the LKP vehemently opposes.

Sources in the LKP said this week that one of their major focuses in Cho’s confirmation hearing will be an agreement signed by his family in mid-2017 to invest billions of won in a private equity fund, only two months after Cho received his credentials from Moon to serve as Blue House senior secretary.

According to documents Cho recently submitted to the National Assembly for the confirmation hearing, his wife and two children agreed in July 2017 to invest a combined amount of nearly 7.5 billion won (around $6.2 million) into a private equity fund, which was larger than the family’s reported wealth of roughly 5.6 billion won. The trio ended up investing only 1.5 billion won in the end, but opposition lawmakers are wondering how they were going to invest more than what they had, and whether it was appropriate for a high-level government official’s family to make such a big investment right after getting appointed to the Blue House.

Cho’s aides denied any wrongdoing, saying his family sold their stocks after Cho was named Moon’s senior secretary and invested the cash earned from those sales into the private equity fund, a process that isn’t banned under the Public Service Ethics Act.

On why Cho’s family agreed to invest more than what they had, Cho’s aides said the agreement did not obligate the family to invest 7.5 billion won in the first place, explaining that amount was somewhat like a “credit card limit” Cho’s family could - but didn’t necessarily have to - pay.

Opposition lawmakers also vowed to take issue with Cho’s wife’s sale of her apartment in Busan to the ex-wife of Cho’s younger brother in November 2017, while Cho was serving in the Blue House, claiming the nominee was trying to evade accusations his family owned several homes.

Another accusation Cho will likely face is that he forged his residential documents in order to help his daughter get into a good school.

Asked about the allegations by reporters on Friday as he was entering his office in central Seoul, Cho said he’d “faithfully” respond to questions.

BY HAN YOUNG-IK [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]