Cho Kuk announces prosecution reform measures during a press conference at the Gwacheon Government Complex in Gwacheon, S.Korea on Monday. AP/ Hong Hae-In
South Korea’s justice minister on Monday offered to step down amid an investigation into allegations of financial crimes and academic favors surrounding his family, a scandal that has rocked Seoul’s liberal government and deeply polarized national opinion.
The minister, Cho Kuk, said in a statement that he was offering to resign to reduce President Moon Jae-in’s political burden.
Moon’s office didn’t immediately comment on whether Moon would accept Cho’s offer. Kang Gi-jung, Moon’s chief of staff, told reporters that the president would comment on Cho’s resignation offer during a meeting with senior advisers later on Monday.
Huge crowds of Cho’s supporters and critics have marched in South Korea’s capital in recent weeks, demonstrating how the months-long saga over Cho has deepened the country’s political divide.
Cho’s statement came as state prosecutors continued to push forward with a criminal investigation into his university professor wife, brother and other relatives over allegations of dubious financial investments, fraud and creating fake credentials for his daughter that may have helped her enter a top university in Seoul and a medical school in Busan.
Cho, a law professor who for years cultivated an image as an anti-elitist reformist, has denied wrongdoing. But he said he couldn’t push further as minister while ignoring the pain his family was going through.
“I concluded that I should no longer burden the president and the government with issues surrounding my family,” Cho said in an emailed statement. “I think the time has come that the completion of efforts to reform the prosecution would only be possible if I step down from my position.”
Moon’s liberal Minjoo Party and Cho’s supporters, who occupied streets in front of a Seoul prosecutors office for the fourth-straight weekend Saturday, have claimed the investigation is aimed at intimating Cho, who has pushed for reforms that include curbing the power of prosecutors.
South Korea’s main opposition party called Cho’s resignation offer “too late” and demanded Moon apologize over the turmoil created by his appointment.
Moon had stood firmly by Cho, a key political ally, who he appointed a month ago despite parliamentary resistance. The controversy over Cho dented the popularity of Moon and his ruling party, according to recent polls, an alarming development for the liberals ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in April.
“Is President Moon Jae-in listening to people’s voices only after his and his ruling party’s approval ratings face the danger of a nosedive?” the conservative Liberty Korea Party said in a statement. “The president must apologize to the people for plunging the Republic of Korea to a chaos by appointing an unqualified minister.”
Tens of thousands of opposition protesters have rallied for weeks near Seoul’s presidential office calling for Cho’s ouster and arrest.
In South Korea, prosecutors have exclusive authority to indict and seek warrants for criminal suspects and exercise control over police investigative activities. They can also directly initiate criminal investigations even when there’s no complaint.
Critics say such powers are excessive and have prompted past conservative governments to use the prosecution as a political tool to suppress opponents and carry out vendettas.
The conservatives, now the opposition, say the ruling liberals are pressuring prosecutors over a legitimate criminal probe surrounding a key member of their government.
In a country grappling with widening inequality and where children toil in brutally competitive school environments, the controversy over Cho has struck a nerve and tarnished the image of Moon, who vowed to restore the public’s faith in fairness and justice after winning a presidential by-election in 2017 to replace his conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye, who is jail for a corruption conviction.
Recent polls indicate Moon’s popularity has sank to the lowest levels since he took office. In a survey of some 1,000 South Koreans released last Friday by Gallup Korea, 51% of the respondents negatively rated Moon’s performance in state affairs, compared to 43% who said he was doing a good job. The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
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