Alexandra Smith | East Asia Fellow
South Korea has been rocked by a corruption scandal that has seen several family members of now-former justice minister Cho Kuk investigated over alleged financial crimes and faking university admission credentials. The saga has caused weeks of national protests and has deepened South Korea’s political divide.
In an ironic twist, the office Cho was up until recently tasked with running is now the very office tasked with investigating his family members. Cho’s wife Chung Kyung-sim has been implicated in both issues and was indicted on 15 counts relating to forging a certificate for her daughter’s university admission and dubious investments into private equity funds.
Initially, students raised suspicions over Cho’s daughter Cho Min’s admission to the prestigious medical school of Korea University in Seoul in 2010. Before admission, Cho Min was named as a lead author in a medical research paper, despite being a high school student who was undertaking a two-week internship at the time. Additionally, she received scholarships over three years at university, despite her family’s wealth and her mediocre grades.
Cho is considered a close confidant of President Moon Jae-in and until recent events, would have been viewed as a top pick to succeed him. He previously served as Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs until his justice minister nomination in August 2019. Due to their relationship and shared vision, Moon stood firmly behind Cho and pushed forward his appointment despite resistance from the Parliament during confirmation procedures.
Both Moon and Cho have been advocates for political transparency and have called out politicians for unethical behaviour in the past. Moon’s campaign for the Presidency was predicated on a promise to create a “world without privilege”. In South Korea, where economic inequality runs rampant, the education system has been presented by the government as a force for equality. Yet, the rich and powerful continue to manipulate the system to favour their children.
While Cho would have previously been viewed as a key figure in fighting the systematic issue of inequality, the advantages his family have received due to their connections and money have exposed hypocrisy at the highest levels of governance. Moon’s solidarity with Cho throughout this scandal has led to a significant decline in his public support and has fuelled protests among Korea’s vocal conservatives. A survey conducted at the end of September revealed 53.7 per cent of respondents believe that Moon made a mistake in appointing Cho.
The national prosecutor’s office in South Korea has been unpopular for years. Prosecutors are viewed as wielding too much power and as using the office to suppress political opponents. While every South Korean president has vowed to weed out corruption in the office, they have often later used the office for their political gain in silencing dissidents or diverting public attention away from domestic crises.
Despite the scandal, Moon and Cho have achieved more than their predecessors in reforming the office. Before Cho announced his resignation he pushed through several major reforms including limits on late-night questioning, an end to the practice of forcing people to stand before news cameras before entering the office for questioning, and the removal of chauffeur services for senior prosecutors. The main tenet of Cho’s reforms is a bill currently in Parliament which could see the potential creation of a separate agency to investigate corruption among prosecutors.
While Moon and Cho’s aim to reform the office has in part been fulfilled, the process has cost public support and further emphasised the undue power that wealth affords in Korean society. While the public may have initially hoped that the Moon administration would be less corrupt than the former conservative government, these hopes are now diminishing. Cho’s failure to admit responsibility in the scandal has seen his image as a champion of equality permanently tarnished. Evidently, there is still a double standard in South Korean politics when one’s own family is involved.
Alexandra Smith is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.