With the rich scent of hypocrisy in its nostrils, and sensing a crack in the formidable defenses of President Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s right wing has gone on the attack.
Their target? Cho Kuk, a justice minister nominee and icon of the left who is currently buffeted by a storm of controversies. His woes are offering conservatives a field day.
On the political front, he has presented a divided and demoralized right-win bloc with a surprise weapon ahead of National Assembly elections next April – elections expected to serve as a judgment on the first half of Moon’s single presidential term.
For ordinary South Koreans, Cho’s alleged misdemeanors paint an all-too-familiar picture of elite entitlement, familial privilege and power abuse.
Making things especially bad for Cho, his sudden fall in reputation was from a lofty perch where he’d been seen as a fearless fighter against the very sorts of social inequality and privilege that he now stands accused of exploiting.
Even with Seoul absorbed in a potentially disastrous trade fight with Japan, vernacular headlines over the last week have been dominated by Cho, a handsome, 54-year-old-but-youthful-looking master communicator who has authored a string of books on justice and social justice issues. A sweetheart of the Korean left, he ticks every box.
In 1993, he was detained for being part of an organization affiliated with the Socialist Workers League of Korea that the right considers “anti-state.” In that capacity, he was championed as a prisoner of conscience by authoritative human rights NGO Amnesty International.
He went on study at elite universities including Seoul National, Berkeley and Oxford, and also became a key figure in various South Korean NGOs, such as the respected People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. Wielding a PhD in law from Berkeley, he was made a professor at Seoul National, Korea’s top university – one of the most respected positions in Korean society.
From those varied pulpits, and through his books, he has railed against the social and political injustices that beset Korea – a hierarchical and highly competitive society where getting ahead can be about who you know as much as what you know.
More recently, he has emerged as a – perhaps the – key member of the president’s brain trust. He resigned last month as Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs and justice after the president nominated him for justice minister.
His assignment was carrying out a core Moon administration task: reform of the state prosecution, which had been wielded as a blunt instrument by conservative and authoritarian governments of the past.
Minister of injustice?
Cho has, despite his high profile, never actually run for or won an elected public office. And even if he comes across as a holier-than-thou figure, he has suffered his share of controversies.
Some, he has overcome. Allegations of plagiarism in his academic work ended up unproven. He has also been accused of tax evasion.
His current situation, though, looks more critical. Prosecutors are currently investigating multiple criminal complaints against Cho. They have raided over 20 locations nationwide in connection with the cases and slapped travel bans on family members; in South Korea, corruption cases invariably embroil relatives.
It is alleged that his daughter won preferential entry to a top university after being cited, while still a high school student, as the lead author of a paper published in a respected academic journal – an accomplishment she purportedly achieved following a two-week laboratory internship.
The Korean Medical Association has demanded the paper be voided.
Another allegation relates to Cho family investments in a public equity fund, which appears problematic from two perspectives.
The fund took flight after investing in a street-light equipment company that won local government contracts, suggesting possible insider information: Cho had taken a presidential position two months earlier. Moreover, Cho’s family members allegedly invested more in the fund than their reported net worth.
Ministerial nominees are required to attend hearings at the National Assembly. Although the hearings are a formality, they provide savage political theater as nominees are raked over the coals.
Cho was scheduled to run that gauntlet Monday, but his hearing was postponed amid inter-party squabbling. Instead he held a grueling 11-hour-long press conference.
In a bravura performance, Cho fielded all questions – but admitted some “complacency,” if not actual illegality.
“I have tried to be a reformist but I have not been thorough with issues related to my child and issues surrounding me,” Cho said. “I think I was complacent… I have to take the heat about inconsistency.”
And in an endlessly regurgitated formula used by public figures facing legal problems, Cho also apologized “to the public.”
Leftist rallies rightists
The Cho affair has emerged at a time when Korea’s conservatives desperately need a break.
The right has been in disarray since the impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye in a vortex of corruption and abuse- of-power allegations in 2017.
Her once-powerful right-wing party has splintered, and no compelling leader of the various factions has emerged. Readership of conservative media has plunged. Frustrated senior citizens gather weekly in central Seoul in the thousands and tens of thousands, waving Korean and US flags, but their protests are roundly ignored.
Further right-wing woes relate to foreign policy. The right has, unusually, found itself out of step with US Republican President Donald Trump, whose policy of talking to – indeed, befriending – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been enthusiastically endorsed and shared by Moon.
And in Moon’s hyper-emotive historical-judicial-economic battle with hereditary enemy Japan, conservatives have had little choice but to fall into line.
Now, they have a rallying point – even a gift from the political gods, for Cho is highly placed in the left’s hierarchy.
“Cho is probably the president’s closest confidante; it is almost like the intellectual direction of this presidency is set by him,” said Mike Breen, Seoul-based author of The New Koreans. “He is the biggest target so far, beside the president himself.”
Cho’s self-righteousness is coming back to haunt him with a vengeance.
“The most important thing is not the allegations, it is about what he has been saying,” added Oh Young-jin, the digital managing editor of the Seoul daily Korea Times. “He has framed himself as a righteous guy and the public take it as a betrayal.”
Lighting candles, lighting up hypocrisy
Cho is the author of books with titles like “For the Freedom of Conscience and Ideology,” and he has been an outspoken attacker of the privileges of previous right-wing administrations. This makes him exquisitely vulnerable to allegations of hypocrisy.
Central to ex-President Park’s downfall was the abuse of power by her advisor and crony, Choi Soon-shil. Some of Choi’s actions – notably enabling elite-level university privileges for her daughter and enriching herself due to her closeness to power – have parallels in what Cho stands accused of.
Another issue is Cho’s fan base.
“Students are angry because he said he would overcome inequality,” a female student, who did not wish to give her name, told Asia Times. “We are losing faith.”
Korean youth complain that their nation is “Hell Joseon” – an infernal abyss of unfairness and privilege where the young cannot get ahead. That feeling made students the backbone of Cho’s support. But now, demonstrators at elite Seoul universities have raised the modern battle flag of Korean protest – candles – and turned against him in a series of small, but notable, on-campus demonstrations.
Arranging “favors for children in universities infuriates because it is very typical of elite privilege, and that is why people you would expect to be on Cho’s side, like students and professors, are criticizing him,” said Breen. “I think this is something Moon’s supporters thought would never happen and his opponents were waiting for: Something dirty to come out of his presidency.”
Currently, polls suggest that the majority of the public disfavor Cho’s nomination, and Moon likes to say his administration takes its cue from the public.
Still, Cho said yesterday that he would not give up. “I cannot put down a burden that’s on my shoulder just because I and my family suffer,” he said. “I will do everything in my power to complete the reform mission of the Moon administration.”
Moon beams on Cho
And Moon is standing by Cho. Why so?
Breen says that Moon’s “standout characteristic is stubbornness,” while Oh calls him “a fundamentalist.” Regardless of National Assembly disapproval, Moon can nominate Cho to carry out prosecution reform – a mission many Koreans support.
Moon could be making a safe calculation. His supporters are fully behind Cho, demanding an end to the “witch hunt.”
And all indications are that the Cho scandal, however juicy, is not the savior of South Korea’s right.
Firstly, those who consider Cho a pro-North Korean figure – due to his early membership in what conservatives call a subversive organization – are already disenfranchised: They rally weekly in Seoul, but generate virtually no media or other impact.
Secondly, Cho may have emerged too early in the political cycle. Outrage is likely to have subsided by the time parliamentary elections come around in April.
Thirdly, the right lacks the leadership to leverage the opportunity.
“There is nobody in the conservative camp to use this weapon: the right is headless and clueless,” said Oh. “They will pay for their lack of leadership and achievement in April.”