Close Moon Jae-in accomplice Cho Kuk fell to Prosecutor General Yoon Seung-youl's sword at the Justice Ministry. Photo: AFP / Yonhap

The most controversial man in South Korea resigned his high-profile position on Monday, after weeks of huge protests both for and against.

While the rest of the world watched Hong Kong violence and the Turkish invasion of Syria, over the last three weekends, South Korea was galvanized by an alleged scandal involving Justice Minister Cho Kuk. Millions rallied in massive – but peaceful – gatherings that swamped iconic Seoul boulevards.

Cho was personally appointed, against strident opposition objections, by President Moon Jae-in on September 9 to reform the country’s massively powerful prosecution – a reform that many would agree is desperately needed.

On Monday, Cho called it a day.

“I was mere kindling for reforming the prosecution,” Cho – a darling of the TV cameras who is known for his good looks, flowing locks and well-tailored suits – said in a statement. “My role as kindling has come to an end.”

He cited both personal and political reasons for his decision.

“I judged I should not add a burden to the president and the government regarding my family affairs,” his statement continued. “I think the time has come for me to step down for the successful completion of prosecution reform.”

Family scandal

While Cho’s professional credentials – he is an author of various scholarly books on legal and ethical matters, and has been a well regarded professor of law – appear impeccable, he was despised by many conservatives for his leftist political stance.

When a family scandal appeared Cho became a virtual political bombshell, splashed across front pages and dominating TV news.

The Cho affair was classically – perhaps uniquely – South Korean: Allegations arose that his daughter gained college admission unfairly, and that his family had benefited from inside information to win big on a public infrastructure deal.

In a possibly unprecedented case, the wife of the justice minister became the target of a concerted, intense investigation by prosecutors. She reportedly has suffered through 16-hour interrogations.

Street politics

While the judiciary that was supposedly under his purview swung into action, South Korea’s right wing sniffed blood. A concerted anti-Cho campaign rolled across the streets.

Conservatives – who had been disempowered, demoralized and divided after the 2017 impeachment and arrest of conservative president Park Geun-hye on charges of abuse of power and corruption – found a target. Right-wingers united in their hundreds of thousands to point fingers at Cho’s alleged hypocrisy – a college-admission scandal implicating a presidential crony had ignited the power train that led to the doom of Park – and demand his resignation.

In response, Cho supporters massed in similar numbers. The huge demonstrations that resulted illustrated a stark divide bisecting South Korea society.

Cho’s opponents were predominantly right-wing, older Koreans, and their protests took place largely in Seoul’s traditional central business district, Gwanghwamun, near the Blue House. His supporters were predominantly liberal, younger Koreans, whose demonstrations took place near the High Court in Seoul’s notoriously nouveau riche Gangnam district.

This divide was recognized by Cho’s chief champion, the occupant of the Blue House. In a statement, Moon apologized for “having caused a lot of conflict” and urged citizens to “bring their hearts together.”

Prosecution unreformed

The political furies unleashed by the Cho affair may have unnerved both the ruling Democratic Party and the Blue House.

“The general public is divided sharply and President Moon’s support rate is going down, so Minister Cho’s incident really affected President Moon’s policy and the way he governs,” opined Hwang Ju-myung, a former Constitutional Court judge and the senior partner at Seoul law firm HMP. “So I think finally they decided they will give a hint to the minister: ‘We cannot support you.’”

Experts say the prosecution, a body with a suspiciously high conviction rate, and which has been used as a political blunt instrument by South Korean presidents, is crying out for reform.

Mike Breen, Seoul-based author of The New Koreans, called Korea’s judicial system“the one institution that has not democratized with the rest of the country.”

“The prosecutors no longer beat people up when they question them, but everything else still goes,” Breen said, referring to the practices of the authoritarian governments that ruled South Korea prior to mass protests that led to democratization in 1987. “The midnight arrests, the parading of suspects humiliatingly in front of the press when they are just being questioned, no respect for defense lawyers, pressure to give false testimony and so on.”

Central to a prosecution-reform process should be not so much structural change but, rather, the rights of the defendant, Hwang told Asia Times.

“In my opinion, what they should do is let the lawyers attend investigations that are going on, as in the US Miranda law, but now that is at the discretion of the prosecutor who is investigating,” Hwang explained. “It is stipulated in the constitution that everyone has a right to be supported by a lawyer, but in practice it is not done. That is the problem.”

South Korea came into being as a state in 1948 and democratized in 1987, but there are devious political reasons prosecution reform has remained a task undone by previous presidents. Only one, leftist Roh Moo-hyun – a former human-rights lawyer and the mentor of Moon – attempted it, and his reforms were overturned by his right-wing successor Lee Myung-bak.

Informally, the judiciary falls under the control of the executive via the Justice Ministry – providing the president an attractively powerful tool.

“Once a president comes into office, whatever good intentions they may have had, the power of the prosecution is very tempting as it allows them to direct investigation,” said Breen. “That is why it took Moon two and a half years to start talking about it: He was using his power over the prosecutors to jail members of the previous administration.”

It is unclear at this point whether the right wing will be calmed by what looks like its first real victory over Moon, or will be emboldened by it. Beyond that, an issue arguably bigger than partisan politics hangs over society.

Hours before he resigned, Cho finished a paper laying out his vision for achieving prosecution reform.

It is not yet clear whether Cho’s “kindling” will, indeed, ignite reform – or whether the issue will turn cold under his successor.

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