The fall of President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating down to the 40 percent mark made headlines last week. The Korea Gallup figure was the lowest since the May 2017 election, which he won with 41 percent support in a five-way race with two conservative contenders, one centrist and one progressive.
The rating had been over 60 percent after the dramatic summit talks with North Korean chief Kim Jong-un in the border village of Panmunjom and the North’s capital of Pyongyang last year. A sluggish economy not helped by fruitless experiments steadily lowered support and the Cho Kuk scandal over the past several weeks accelerated the decline to the alarming level. A Blue House spokesperson said, “we are not discouraged, and you may not expect a change of course.”
President Moon believes that misdeeds involving Cho’s family that have so far been exposed -- or suspected by prosecutors -- are not serious enough to pull the new justice minister out. The problem is that too many conscientious citizens (upward of 70 percent) determined him unfit for the job because of his faulty personality shown in the great contradiction between his public statements including his 14,000 SNS quips and what he and his family are known to have done.
A ruling party lawmaker complained that there were too many news items concerning Cho Kuk in online and offline media outlets these days - 10 times more than the frequency of the stories of Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 and five times those of the Choe Sun-sil affair. Rep. Lee Chul-hee criticized excessive media attention to the issue, but he aptly revealed how deeply Korean society is currently haunted by the controversy.
Friends, fed up with the Cho Kuk arguments, decide at the start of a luncheon that whoever mentions the name first should pick up the tab. But in the middle of the meal they find themselves engrossed in talks about the 54-year-old new Cabinet member. Some commentators welcomed the sudden awakening of Koreans’ social conscience as revealed by the Cho scandal.
People are not sure yet how far Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-yeol will go with the current investigations of alleged improprieties committed by Cho’s wife, his relatives and businesspeople related to the family’s finances. There are some skeptics, but most show trust in him now. The media compete to make the daily rundown of investigation results with the help of zealous prosecutors.
As detailed misdeeds unfold, people are seeing a hypocrite masquerading as crusader of justice. They are profoundly worried that the Cho affair will result in cynicism prevailing in our society, particularly among the younger generation. The boundary between the truth and lies has often been blurred, but it would be non-existent as far as our government is concerned, if Cho stays on as “minister of justice.”
Last week, he started a round of “conversations” with prosecutors at district offices, explaining his vision of prosecution reform. As innovative plans, he has called for adequately sharing the law enforcement authority between police and prosecutors, establishing a new office exclusively responsible for investigating corruption in high offices, and rationalizing the system of promotion and reassignment of prosecutors.
One senior prosecutor was quoted in a local newspaper as saying that, “The new minister’s preaching about prosecution reform may be comparable to Yoo Seung-jun exhorting Korean youths to join the Army.” Popular singer Yoo came under public censure for choosing US citizenship, allegedly to evade mandatory military service here.
Prosecutors have indicted Cho’s wife Cheong Kyeong-sim on charges of forgery of documents and obstruction of justice, and arrested his cousin’s son for illegal business activities. As many as 50 offices and private homes, including Minister Cho’s apartment, have been searched, and dozens of people, including some of Cho’s relatives, have been interrogated. Many believe it is a matter of time before the justice minister himself is subpoenaed.
So, we could soon see the unprecedented event of the justice minister being questioned by a district prosecutor regarding the degree of his involvement in his wife’s deeds to help her children’s university entrance and in the complex business deals in which his money has circulated.
Cho Kuk is an invaluable gift to the opposition for its anti-Moon struggle. But parties, each mired in internal strife, have failed to turn the losses of the ruling force to their gain. While the approval ratings for the president and the ruling party have been going down, support for the main opposition Liberty Korea Party has stayed put at around 20 percent. The proportion of those with “no favored party,” meanwhile, has swelled to 40 percent.
The Liberty Korea Party filed an injunction against Cho’s ministerial duties, and its chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn and several senior members had their heads tonsured in protest. Hong Jun-pyo, the party’s 2017 presidential candidate, advised them to choose more practical and effective responses, instead of such theatrics. The newly formed “Our Republican Party” loyal to former president Park Geun-hye has stolen a significant portion of conservative voters.
Opposition groups could seek some form of coalition or regrouping with the approach of next general election in April 2020. But with little possibility of that happening, the president and his party have been emboldened in dealing with the Cho Kuk problem as well as other policy initiatives. Yet, the sagging economy still poses as the biggest challenge for the second half of the Moon presidency, as a turnaround in employment and growth is hardly expected.
With bleak prospects for the economy, the Moon administration will look forward eagerly to progress in the efforts for denuclearization of North Korea. However, Seoul officials find themselves are simply standing by while the US and North Korea act. If anything, Seoul government leaders will have to cross their fingers about the moves in Washington and Pyongyang to hold another meeting between Donald Trump and his “good friend” Kim Jong-un.
We deplore that the Cho Kuk affair is consuming so much political and social energy nowadays. Criminal convictions of Cho’s family members, their business associates and possibly the justice minister himself could signal the premature beginning of the lame duck status for Moon.
This republic has a large population of ex-Cabinet ministers, some of whom served for only several days to a few weeks. The prompt departure of Cho Kuk will help make Moon’s final years a little more peaceful. The nation with a relatively short history of democracy needs a real man of integrity as justice minister who can best preside over the rule of law taking root in both official and private lives.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He served as head of the Korea Overseas Information Service during the Kim Dae-jung administration. -- Ed.