Justice minister nominee denies role in alleged corruption involving his family

September 6, 2019

Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk denied he had any part in alleged corruption involving his family during a confirmation hearing Friday, as political parties wrangled over his suitability for the post.

Cho repeatedly apologized to the public for the allegations that have caused public disappointment and uproar, but he also expressed his unwavering commitment to carrying out reform of the prosecution.

“For the reform, I think that a proper candidate for justice minister should have no experience serving as a prosecutor. If not, the person cannot help representing interests of the prosecution,” Cho told lawmakers.

Cho, a former senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, was bombarded with questions by lawmakers over his supposed ethical lapses linked to suspected corruption involving his family.

Since being nominated in early August, Cho has faced a string of allegations of irregularities, including that his daughter received preferential treatment in entering elite colleges and that his family made a dubious investment in a private equity fund.

President Moon Jae-in’s nomination of Cho reflects his firm will to reform the prosecution so as to guarantee its political neutrality and grant more investigative power to police.

But Cho, a reform-minded law professor, has been under public fire as the corruption scandal has brought to the fore his “hypocritical” behavior. He has long preached for a fair and just society and condemned the social ills committed by the privileged.

In particular, the allegations over his 28-year-old daughter have hit a public nerve in a country where admission to prestigious universities is a sensitive issue.

Cho’s daughter was listed as the primary author of a pathology paper published in a medical journal in 2018 after she took part in a two-week internship program under a medical professor while she was still in high school. Critics allege that the paper may have helped her gain admission to Korea University in 2010.

She also received a scholarship six times from 2016-2018, even though she flunked twice when she attended the medical school at Pusan National University (PNU).

Cho denied involvement in the allegations related to his daughter.

“(Prosecutors’) investigations are under way over the allegations. I was not aware of the most of them,” he said.

The hearing came at the height of the prosecution’s investigation into the suspected irregularities. State prosecutors have raided more than 20 locations since last week.

During the hearing, lawmakers mainly bickered over fresh allegations that Cho’s spouse may have fabricated a school award for her daughter.

Cho’s wife, a Dongyang University professor surnamed Chung, faces allegations that she may have forged the dean’s award certificate in 2012 to help the daughter enter the PNU medical school in 2014.

The award was allegedly given in recognition of volunteer work at the school’s English education center for children from rural villages in Yeongju, 230 kilometers southeast of Seoul. Chung later became the chief of the center.

Dongyang University Dean Choi Sung-hae said Thursday that Chung asked him to say he had entrusted her with the authority to issue the dean’s award certificate. His remarks spawned speculation that Chung may have attempted to destroy evidence.

Choi told Yonhap News Agency that Chung put her husband on the phone with him and he was pressed by Cho to make a false statement on the forgery allegations against Chung.

Cho acknowledged that he spoke by phone with Choi, but dismissed claims that he might have exerted pressure on the chief.

“I told Choi that I am sorry (about the row) and asked him to reveal the truth as it is,” Cho said.

“If my wife committed (the alleged forgery), she should have to take legal responsibility, as everybody is equal before law,” he noted.

Cho, meanwhile, expressed regret over the slow progress on reform of the elite investigative agency and said he hoped to be able to complete it.

At the presidential office, Cho was the main architect of proposals to set up a separate investigative unit to probe alleged corruption by ranking officials and to give more authority to police.

Cho told reporters Monday that now is the optimal time to overhaul the prosecution organization. He was speaking during a surprise press briefing as a scheduled two-day hearing set for early this week fell through due to partisan arguments.

The prosecution, meanwhile, expedited its probe by summoning key figures implicated in the allegations.

The ruling Democratic Party (DP) has openly condemned the probe as a move intended to hamper Moon’s reform vision.

The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae and the prosecution clashed over the investigation Thursday as the office of state prosecutors made a rare public protest urging presidential officials to stop intervening in its probe. Cheong Wa Dae immediately denied any interference.

President Moon is expected to appoint Cho as the minister as early as this weekend, as he has asked the National Assembly to send a hearing report on Cho by Friday.