Scandal-stricken Justice Minister Cho Kuk stepped down from his post Monday amid an ongoing investigation into corruption allegations involving his family, 35 days after he was appointed despite strong objections from the opposition bloc.
President Moon Jae-in accepted his resignation. During his meeting with senior aides on Monday afternoon, Moon reiterated his determination to push for the overhaul of the prosecution and expressed regret at having caused “conflicts” among Koreans.
“I thought my family affairs should not burden the president and the administration any longer,” Cho said in a statement issued some two hours after announcing measures to reform the prosecution.
“I think the time has come that prosecution reform can be completed successfully only after I step down,” he said a day before he was set to be grilled at a parliamentary audit as justice minister. “I am no more than a ‘kindling’ for reforming the prosecution. My role as a ‘kindling’ ends here.”
The resignation of Cho, Moon’s former presidential secretary for civil affairs, came as efforts to overhaul the prosecution gained pace.
Just a few hours earlier, Cho announced the ministry’s plan to put the reform measures on the agenda at an upcoming Cabinet meeting. The measures are aimed at curbing the power of prosecutors in direct investigations.
Only three “special investigation units” -- elite squads probing corruption allegations involving high-ranking officials -- will remain under prosecutors’ offices in Seoul, Daegu and Gwangju and will be renamed “anti-corruption investigation units.”
The prosecution has been criticized for holding too much power, as it monopolizes the rights to close probes and file charges against suspects. Critics have called the special units a source of cozy connections among prosecutors, politicians and business tycoons.
Some controversial practices -- such as public summoning, late-night and long hours of questioning and the revelation of criminal charges of suspects -- will be corrected, to better protect the suspects’ rights.
Cho’s resignation came after officials from the presidential office and ruling Democratic Party of Korea lawmakers agreed to push for swift judicial reform at a meeting Sunday.
“The strong will of Justice Minister Cho Kuk for the prosecution reform and the attitude of enduring all the difficulties for it have gained empathy from the public on the need for the prosecution reform, which became a huge driving force,” Moon said Monday, adding he had hoped for reform by the “fantastic combination” of Cho and Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl.
Yoon has also laid out internal measures to revamp the law enforcement agency, with a focus on balancing the authority of the prosecution and improving controversial investigation practices.
Cho, a key architect of the Moon administration’s road map for judicial reform, was appointed Sept. 9 despite strong protests from the opposition bloc. Moon had hailed him as the right person to complete the mission.
The prosecution’s sweeping investigation into Cho’s family, however, pressured him to step down.
Cho also apologized to the public for the corruption scandal.
“I felt apologetic to the public regarding the investigation into (my) family, but I put up with it each day with the determination to do my ‘last part’ for the prosecution reform as a minister, even for a few days, before disappearing,” he said in the statement.
“Now, I believe parties, the government and the presidential office have joined hands to complete the prosecution reform,” he said, calling it a “historic task” that no other administration has been able to accomplish.
Cho’s relative was arrested for allegedly running a shady private equity fund, and Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-shim, is suspected of having conspired with him. She was summoned for questioning for the fifth time on Monday and requested that questioning be stopped after learning about her husband’s resignation.
Separately, Chung was brought to trial over allegations that she forged academic credentials for her daughter using her status and connections, to help her gain admission to a prestigious university and medical school.
Court proceedings for Chung are scheduled to begin Friday.
Cho’s appointment had divided the county, with opposing sides -- those who supported Cho and those who demanded his resignation – taking to the streets for the past month, most recently Saturday.
A coalition of university students also held a demonstration Saturday, demanding a “fair society” and the resignation of Cho over allegations that his daughter enjoyed preferential treatment due to his status and connections.
The scandal surrounding Cho’s family appears to have dragged down President Moon’s approval rating to its lowest level since he took office in May 2017.
His approval rating fell 3 percentage points on-week to 41.4 percent, according to a survey of 2,502 adults by Realmeter. The proportion of people critical of Moon rose 3.8 percentage points to 56.1 percent from a week earlier.
A separate Realmeter survey of 500 adults on Friday showed that 55.9 percent of South Koreans wanted the justice minister to step down.