President Moon Offers Public Apology for Justice Minister Scandal

John Kim, Oct. 14, 2019, 9:36 a.m.

President Moon Jae-in apologized Monday to the public for a huge social conflict stemming from his pick of Cho Kuk as new justice minister. "I am very sorry for, as a result, having caused a lot of conflicts," he said at the start of his weekly meeting with senior Cheong Wa Dae aides. As usual, pool reporters were allowed to cover his opening remarks in the weekly session.

Moon said he had expected "fantastic harmony" between Cho and Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl for his drive to reform the prosecution.

"It has ended up in a dreamy hope," Moon said. State prosecutors have conducted an intensive probe into allegations of crimes involving Cho's family, including over his daughter's schooling and an investment by his wife in a private equity fund suspected of dubious operations. An hour before Moon's statement, Cho announced his decision to bow out in the face of unrelenting public criticism. Moon said South Korean society has suffered a great deal of trouble from the Cho case.

"As the president, I am very sorry to the people for the fact itself," he added. However, he stressed, it was not to no avail, having offered a "precious chance" to raise public understanding on the urgent need for prosecution reform, the value of fairness and the role of media.

Cho's resolve to reform the prosecution and his attitude as justice minister, in particular, has created "big traction" for the reform drive, Moon added.

He cited a set of reform measures, drafted by the justice ministry under Cho's leadership over the past month. Among the measures are detailed ways to tackle deep-rooted malpractices involving the powerful prosecution.

Earlier in the day, Cho announced the plans, which include scaling down "special investigative units" that specialize in looking into corruption scandals involving high-ranking government officials or heads of conglomerates.

"It's a work to begin a big step toward prosecution reform," which has long been demanded but previous administration has done, Moon said. He instructed the government to follow up on the plans and complete relevant administrative procedures, if necessary, by the end of this month. He vowed to continue the campaign "to the last" despite Cho's resignation, saying prosecution reform and promoting fairness are most the important policy goals and tasks of his administration. Moon then accepted Cho's resignation offer, Cheong Wa Dae announced.

A Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters that Cho delivered his intention to step down on Sunday, right after attending a three-way meeting with top officials from the presidential office and the ruling Democratic Party, at the National Assembly. Cho had no prior consultation with the president on his decision, the official stressed. A source said Cho had informed the president of his decision during a Cheong Wa Dae meeting on Sunday.

It's unclear whether Cho's departure from the Cabinet will free Moon fully from a huge political burden that has dogged his leadership for months. A growing number of swing voters have been turning their back on the ruling bloc, raising a sense of crisis among DP members, with the general elections just half a year away. Moon's approval rating has plunged to its lowest level, multiple opinion polls have showed.

The proportion of those who support the DP fell to 35.3 percent, the lowest in seven months, according to the latest Realmeter poll. In contrast, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP)'s approval rating jumped to 34.4 percent, narrowing the gap between the rival parties to its narrowest since the launch of the Moon administration in May 2017.

Prosecutors are expected to seek an arrest warrant for Cho's wife as early as this week over her association with the private equity fund allegedly managed by the arrested son of one of Cho's cousins. She has already been indicted on charges of forging a document used in her daughter's post-graduate medical school application. The political controversy over Moon's appointment of Cho will likely go on if she's found guilty and Cho was found to have been aware of wrongdoings.

Moon may regain some public support if they turn out to be innocent in the judicial process. But the Moon government's reform image has been already tainted seriously amid the Cho Kuk turmoil, while critics are apparently emboldened by the exit in disgrace of Moon's political ally, a "reform icon" of the liberal administration.

If the DP is defeated in the elections, slated for April 15, 2020, it would raise the specter of Moon becoming an early lame duck. Next month, Moon is to reach the halfway point of his single five-year tenure.

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