The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Korea Divided Over Nomination of Controversial Justice Minister

The polarization from Cho Kuk’s nomination threatens to hang over Korean politics for a while.

Tae-jun Kang
South Korea Divided Over Nomination of Controversial Justice Minister
Credit: Pixabay

South Korean President Moon Jae-in on September 9 appointed a controversial figure Cho Kuk as the country’s justice minister, a month after he became the nominee.

Over a month, countless allegations emerged over Cho, who served as the administration’s first presidential senior secretary for civil affairs, that he and his family members had engaged either illegal or unfair practices seeking personal gains.

Among the allegations are that Cho’s daughter was able to get admitted to a prestigious university in South Korea after she was credited as the main author of a published scientific paper while a high school student on a brief internship.

Other allegations include a questionable investment in a private fund, fake divorce of his family member, fabrication of official documents, faking an address, faking age, attempts to destroy evidence against him, and more.

Many of these still remain allegations or suspicions, but the prosecutors have started to look into some matters and are expected to expand the scope of the investigation. Cho’s wife is currently under investigation, for instance.

This has increased public anger among those who believe Cho is not qualified to carry out his tasks as the justice minister. Upon Cho’s appointment, South Korea’s largest Internet portal website Naver was flooded with demands from online users who urged Cho to step down.

But not everyone agrees. There are still many who support Cho and respect President Moon’s decision. After all, only a small number of allegations over Cho have been proven to be true so far.

As much as Cho’s opponents and supporters are divided, political parties are also clashing over his appointment. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea is putting in every effort to prevent Cho from falling, while the main opposition Liberty Korea Party intensifying its attacks on Cho and the current government.

This is mainly because of the upcoming general elections scheduled for April next year.

The elections are deemed a barometer of the fate of the second half of Moon’s administration. Furthermore, the outcome of next year’s general elections is a prelude to the 2022 presidential and local elections.

What’s notable is that many South Korean citizens seem to have not made up their mind about Cho’s appointment, which is directly linked to approving rates of the current government.

Public opinion on Cho’s appointment is a good example, which has been fluctuating significantly over the past few weeks.

When President Moon nominated Cho as justice minister on August 18, a poll by Hankook Research showed that about 42 percent of respondents supported him while 36 percent opposed his nomination.

On August 25, however, when allegations of Cho’s corruption related to education emerged, the gap between the two groups widened dramatically. At that time, only 18 percent said they supported Cho.

The figure for supporters bounced back to about 38 percent after the confirmation hearing for Cho on September 7, while 51 percent of respondent opposed him.

Meanwhile, a separate poll conducted by R&Search last week showed that about 50.9 percent respondents said they were “centrists,” indicating that there are many people who have not decided which side they want to vote for in the upcoming elections.

Upon the announcement of the nominations of Cho, the ruling party commented that it expected Cho to be able to introduce justice and fairness to the South Korean society while improving the country’s prosecutors.

It also deemed the current investigation on Cho as “meddling” from prosecutors in a political matter and said it would take this into consideration in the future “revamp” of the prosecutor organization.

In contrast, the main opposition party is devoting all its strength to stop Cho. Calling the nomination the “end of the government,” the Liberty Korea Party is looking to trigger a special investigation on Cho to get to the bottom of all his allegations while continuing protests until its messages get delivered to the president.

Nonetheless, such division between political parties and the public is not ideal for the country. What’s worrying is that it shows no sign of abating.