South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s nominee for justice minister might soon take office under the cloud of an official inquiry and public outcry over a scandal that has reignited debate over class privilege.
At issue are scholarships and other perks granted to the daughter of South Korean minister of justice designate Cho Kuk that are allegedly out of line with her academic performance.
The scandal has struck a chord in South Korea, where young people, who compete furiously through school and university, are increasingly finding themselves scrambling for a dwindling number of positions in a slack job market, in a system they see as plagued by systemic unfairness and bias in favor of the elite.
The scandal surrounding Cho, who yesterday faced a legislative confirmation hearing, has caused a media sensation and sparked protests since Moon nominated him early last month.
At the hearing, Cho did not deny his daughter’s academic perks and expressed his “deepest apologies to the younger generation” for the disappointment that he caused them.
However, he said that his responsibility was to complete the reform of the South Korean Ministry of Justice and prosecution, and would consider a way to make amends to young people who do not have the same opportunities.
His 28-year-old daughter has not been identified in South Korean media and she has made no public comment on the controversy.
Students at South Korea’s top universities, including Seoul National University, where Cho is a professor of law, have held candlelight demonstrations calling for him to give up the nomination, reminiscent of the protests that swept Moon into power in 2017.
Some of the allegations against Cho’s daughter that have drawn the most ire include her being named as first author of a medical paper in the Korean Journal of Pathology in 2009, when she was still in high school and had just completed a two-week internship at Dankook University’s institute of medical science.
She also failed her exams at Pusan National University’s medical school twice, school records showed.
However, not only did she keep her place, she also received scholarships worth a total of 12 million won (US$10,041 at the current exchange rate) over six semesters between 2016 and last year.
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office has opened an investigation into unspecified allegations against Cho’s family, conducting a series of raids at dozens of related offices late last month, including the universities involved in the allegations.
The prosecutors’ office declined to comment.
If appointed, Cho would oversee the prosecutors’ office, but he has vowed not to receive reports on any investigation into his family.
The scandal has been a particular disappointment to young people who supported Moon and his party when he became president.
The liberal president took office after the impeachment for corruption of his conservative predecessor, who came from one of South Korea’s most prominent political families.
Moon promised change.
“Opportunities will be equal, processes will be fair and results will be just,” he said.
At the time, Cho was seen as a vocal champion of progressive causes who had spoken out against elitism.
Moon’s ratings have been sliding, with the Cho scandal the latest issue to undermine his support.
In the latest poll of 1,002 people by Gallup Korea conducted from Tuesday to Thursday, 49 percent of respondents said that they disapproved of Moon’s work, while 21 percent said that Moon’s decision to appoint Cho was the reason for their disapproval, up 6 percentage points from the previous week.
It was the second-highest reason for disapproval, after the sagging economy at 22 percent.
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