The air over the Republic of Korea remained clear through this summer, thanks to the southeasterly winds blowing from the Pacific Ocean. As the cooler season approaches, we are again worried about seeing gray skies full of fine dust from China -- in addition to the political, economic and security problems that are already affecting the nation and seem unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Externally, relations between Seoul and Tokyo have sunk to their worst level since normalization of ties in 1965. Nuclear-armed North Korea is firing new models of ballistic missiles almost every other day and Donald Trump, president of our only military ally, keeps calling the North’s chief Kim Jong-un his friend and a great leader.
On the domestic front, President Moon Jae-in faces the biggest challenge to his leadership over his decision to nominate his protege Cho Kuk as the next minister of justice. For the first time since he took office in May 2017, Moon’s approval rating fell below the 50 percent mark as many voters in their 20s and 30s, hitherto his bastion of support, turned against him out of a sense of being cheated. Concerns are rising that he may become an early lame duck.
Critics questioned the appropriateness of giving the august job of justice minister to an outspoken leftist ideologue with no experience in law enforcement. But the Blue House portrayed him as the person most qualified to push the president’s reform agenda during the latter half of his tenure. Then there was an avalanche of media disclosures about Cho’s private affairs, revealing serious moral flaws.
The right-wing opposition cited at least 10 transgressions that they believed were filthy enough to draw public anger. They concerned Cho’s family finances, the running of a school foundation by his family and the schooling of his daughter. Most unbelievable of all, his daughter’s name appeared on a pathology paper produced by a Seoul university research team in 2008, when she was a high school junior, identifying her as the primary author.
Cho’s daughter used the dubious academic paper to support her university admission application. Most surprisingly, she later won scholarships amounting to 12 million won ($10,000) to attend medical school for six consecutive semesters in 2016 and 2017, despite low scores, when her father reported personal assets amounting to over 5 billion won.
The Blue House, the ruling Democratic Party and some left-wing warriors came to Cho’s aid, saying he had not broken the law outright and accusing the media of spreading exaggerations and fake news. They countered the offensive with claims that critics on the right were guilty of equally serious misdeeds, or worse. However, overwhelming objections to Cho’s appointment undermined support for the Moon presidency as demonstrations were staged in city squares and on university campuses.
Ironically, most damaging are the many aggressive statements Cho made in publications and through social media as a champion of leftist ideology, criticizing vested interests and advocating social reform. Quotes of his scathing attacks on the privileges the elite enjoy in education and job opportunities have proliferated as part of internet postings, blogs, YouTube videos and social media discussions.
This was a prime case of hypocrisy. Parents with the highest level of education in this country and in the most respected professions took advantage of their social network to provide better academic opportunities for their children while they clamored for the abolition of private schools. Cho only apologized for “not being strict enough” as a parent.
Cho was convicted of violating the National Security Law during the early 1990s for membership of the outlawed civic group Sanomaeng, which was determined to be an anti-state organization. The present ruling party includes many former political activists who take pride in their past pro-democracy and human rights activities. Yet they should recognize that democratic development in this country has passed the watershed of the 1987 reforms that established the present constitutional order.
As long as the 1987 Constitution remains effective, anyone who tried to overthrow the present system by illegal means should be criminally condemned and disqualified from public office. The honorable office of justice minister should be reserved for those who are dedicated to protecting the republic’s democratic order. Cho still has the gall to offer his own plan to reform the prosecution, especially in relations with police.
Cho announced that he would donate his family’s investment in a private equity fund -- about 1 billion won -- to charity and would resign as a trustee of the Ungdong School Foundation, reported to be heavily indebted. If the money is rightfully in his possession, there is no reason to relinquish it; if not, he should withdraw from the nomination.
As public distrust in the Moon administration has deepened, people speculate that the decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan had something to do with the current uproar against Cho Kuk. There were hints that Seoul might adopt a softer stance against Tokyo in the ongoing dispute over trade, skeptics say, but Moon abruptly changed course as he wanted to divert public attention from the Cho affair.
Soft- and hard-liners regarding military cooperation with Japan and the question of Japanese indemnity for forced labor during World War II are nearly in balance in public attitudes. GSOMIA and other issues concerning relations with Japan require a cool-headed approach on the basis of the trilateral security system with the United States. Leaders in both Seoul and Tokyo must resist the temptation to mix domestic questions with external ones as we confront China, Russia and North Korea.
Extremists in the opposition hope President Moon will ignore all objections and go ahead with the appointment of Cho no matter what happens in the National Assembly hearing. His administration will then stagger under growing public dissent through the general elections next spring and the presidential poll in 2022.
No. The republic cannot afford to suffer such disturbances because of the appointment of a Cabinet minister.
The security situation is severe, the economy remains bleak with experiments by the current administration turning out bad results, and worst of all law enforcement is focused on prosecuting wrongdoings that took place in the past. We need a good justice minister who will help put the nation together instead of exacerbating social tensions.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.