Enemies of fair society
President Moon Jae-in promised to create a fair society when he took office in May 2017. He also came up with a motto: “Opportunities are equal, the process is fair, and the outcome is just.”
The motto was eye-catching. Many South Koreans have been craving for equality, fairness and justice, especially after Moon was elected president following his predecessor Park Geun-hye being impeached for corruption.
But now, Moon risks reneging on his promise by appointing Cho Kuk, one of his most trusted aides, as justice minister. The reason is because Cho, an icon of social justice and reform, has been exposed as a hypocrite. Since his nomination early last month, he has been dogged by a series of allegations that he and his family might have been involved in unfair and corrupt practices.
It is frustrating to see the whole nation sharply divided over Cho’s appointment, which has pitted the conservative opposition parties against the liberal ruling party. More than half of the people are still against Cho becoming justice minister.
Particularly college students and young adults have raised their voices against the Seoul National University law professor and former senior presidential secretary for civil affairs. They vented their pent-up anger at the Moon administration’s lip serve and its failure to play fair.
Their fury is fueled by skepticism that little has changed since the mass candlelit protests in late 2016 and early 2017 that contributed to the ouster of former President Park. Moon could not have taken power without taking advantage of these protests.
With the downfall of Park, South Koreans could afford to expect hope for a drastic change and a better future. They chose Moon as their new leader to revive the country’s democracy by rooting out corruption and ushering in clean politics. Moon also vowed to eliminate the “accumulated evils” of our society.
However, Cho’s appointment has revealed the hypocrisy of political power. It is a self-contradiction for Moon to allow such a hypocrite as Cho to lead the Ministry of Justice. Moon deserves criticism for betraying the people’s aspirations for a fair and just society.
Moon picked Cho as justice minister as part of his efforts to reform the prosecution, which has long been criticized for serving as a handmaiden to political power. In the eyes of Moon, Cho was the best person to push this reform as he has expertise in the criminal justice system and no prior connections with the agency.
And yet, the President should have applied much stricter moral and ethical standards to Cho before nominating him. It is a failure by Cheong Wa Dae to not undertake rigorous vetting to check his qualifications for the Cabinet post.
Now the Moon government should do its best to help the prosecution dig deeper into the corruption allegations against Cho. It should not try to influence or hamper the investigation in order to protect him and his family. It is nonsense for Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party to denounce the ongoing probe as the prosecution’s attempt at political intervention.
Cho might become the country’s first justice minister to be relegated to a criminal suspect. His wife, a Dongyang University professor, was indicted for fabricating the school president’s award to help her daughter get admitted to Pusan National University’s Graduate School of Medicine. She is also suspected of making dubious investments in a private equity fund.
Cho and his wife face allegations that they used their influence and connections with academics to help their daughter enter a prestigious college and graduate schools, and receive scholarships. It defies common sense for the daughter, then a high school student, to be named the lead author of a medical thesis while taking part in a two-week internship at a Dankook University research center in 2008.
If there is any lesson to be learned from all the brouhaha over the new justice minister, it is that Korea has no future as long as the elite in our society are engrossed in protecting their own vested interests and privileges at the sacrifice of ordinary people.
The problem is not confined to Cho and his family. The top 10 percent of Korean society — the rich and privileged class represented by chaebol owners, bureaucrats, bankers and professionals such as lawyers, doctors and professors — have formed their own league to monopolize wealth, education and job opportunities. They are the enemies of a fair society. They have blocked social mobility for the remaining 90 percent, especially the poor.
We cannot realize a fair society without breaking the deeply entrenched winner-take-all system. The Cho Kuk case simply shows Korea still has a long way to go before creating a level playing field to ensure fair competition and equal opportunities.