The Minister of Justice position is deemed to be extremely important in South Korea because an individual in this post is responsible for overseeing rule of law and security institutions, particularly law enforcement agencies. De facto in this person’s power to undermine any given investigation or to stage a show trial irrespective of whether or not a defendant is actually guilty.
Our left-wing readers probably recall Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn who played a leading role in the case against the Unified Progressive Party (UPP). A UPP lawmaker was accused of “plotting a pro-North Korea rebellion to overthrow the government” of the ROK. Allegedly, “reference was made to the prospect of attacking South Korean infrastructure” during a UPP meeting. And although, subsequently, UPP lawmakers said they had no intention of following through with such plans, the party was eventually dissolved.
After the Candlelight Struggle ended and democrats, led by Moon Jae-in, came to power, it appeared as if the rein of partisan and incompetent Justice Ministers came to an end. However, Moon Jae-in’s decision to appoint Cho Kuk (a favorite of his) to the post in September 2019 almost resulted in yet another Candlelight Revolution. The author would like to remind his readers that, at the time, Cho Kuk was embroiled in a number of scandals involving him as well as members of his family. Allegations against them ranged from illicit business activities to misconduct involving his daughter, a story with an impact on the younger generation. She was accused of “falsifying her academic achievements to get enrolled in prestigious universities and a medical school”. After a two-week internship at a university, his daughter was listed as the lead author on a paper published in a medical journal. The investigations conducted by the media outlets and prosecutors found that Cho Kuk was named as first author on a research paper despite her minimal contribution. The number of demonstrators who either expressed support for or protested against Cho Kuk’s nomination reached a million, and in the end, he was forced to step down so as not to incriminate his superior. Cho Kuk was subsequently charged with abuse of power while the Blue House criticized the move.
In any case, it is high time the author moved onto the main topic of the story: the individual who replaced Cho Kuk. Her name is Choo Mi-ae and, from 2016 to 2018, she was the Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Korea. After graduating from Hanyang University (its main campus is in Seoul), she passed the National Bar Examination in 1982, and subsequently, became a judge. Choo Mi-ae worked in this capacity in several district courts around the nation. In 1996, she became a Member of the National Assembly, and then went on to serve 5 more terms in it. As a parliamentarian, Choo Mi-ae earned the nickname of “Choo d’Arc” (comparing her to Joan of Arc) because she took a stand against corruption.
The ROK President Moon Jae-in officially appointed Choo Mi-ae as the Minister of Justice on January 2, 2020. Earlier, she had gone through the National Assembly’s confirmation hearing, however, the opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) “refused to adopt a formal hearing report”. Still, the President “can appoint a minister without the National Assembly’s approval, while such a confirmation hearing is mandatory”.
Choo Mi-ae, just as Cho Kuk before her, continued to pursue Moon Jae-in’s reform agenda. She restructured the prosecutor’s office against the wishes of the Chief Prosecutor with the proclaimed aim of fighting corruption at the highest levels. However, it would seem that one of the key lessons to be learnt from the rule by Moon Jae-in and his inner circle is that a dragonslayer can become a dragon. It appears that Choo Mi-ae did not manage to escape such a fate either. At the moment, she is at the center of a fairly unpleasant scandal.
At the time Choo Mi-ae was the Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Korea, her son (surnamed Seo) was serving in the Korean Augmentation To the United States Army (or Katusa). In June 2017, her son had a knee problem and managed to receive “more days of leave to be admitted to a hospital”. It has been alleged that Seo “was given favorable treatment in having his leave extended during his compulsory military service”. It has also been claimed that, after a 20-day leave, Choo Mi-ae’s son did not return to the base and failed to inform his superiors about the absence. Choo Mi-ae has been accused of pressuring senior military personnel in the unit where her son served to grant him an extension. Since his absence was classified as leave in the end, it is believed that Choo Mi-ae “peddled influence to earn special favors for her son”.
In the ROK, military service for males (barring some exemptions) is compulsory. In fact, in the context of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, supporters of mandatory conscription believe that young men have a duty to defend their nation. Hence, politicians who try to use their position of power to ensure their offspring receive special treatment while serving in the military face criticism not only from their political opponents but also the public at large.
Choo Mi-ae has also been reminded about her haughty attitude and arrogant statements prior to the scandal. In fact, her behavior on the political arena has been criticized not only by her opponents but also members of the ruling party.
Issues with Choo Mi-ae’s confirmation for the Justice Minister position started last year when she was forced to address claims of preferential treatment for her son. The initial complaint over the special favor allegations was filed in January 2020. According to legal sources, two investigators, including one prosecutor, in charge of the case were “expected to be temporarily reassigned to a different team”.
At the beginning of September, the scandal reached a new level. If allegations against Choo Mi-ae are found to be true, she “may face charges of violating the Anti-Corruption Law”.
At present, the scandal is in full swing, and it would be interesting to see what becomes of it. After all, Moon Jae-in is currently serving the second half of his presidential term, and the conservative party appears to have successfully rebranded itself by doing away with hateful rhetoric and focusing its effort on criticizing real problem areas. In such a climate, the issue of whether or not abuse of power actually took place becomes somewhat irrelevant, as, at the end of the day, before coming to power, Moon Jae-in and Co had also added fuel to high profile scandals and demanded resignations irrespective of whether or not the alleged culprits were proven to be innocent or guilty.
Various media outlets have reported that such “allegations involving former and incumbent justice ministers are damaging the spirit of equality, fairness and justice ― the so-called key values that the Moon Jae-in administration has pledged to pursue since its inauguration”. And a number of experts agree with this assessment. According to Myongji University professor Kim Hyung-joon, “The series of scandals involving high-ranking officials with the Moon administration is showing that the value of justice it has been talking about is not a universal one but applied selectively. The Moon administration has been lenient with its officials while being strict on others.” In addition, Hwang Tae-soon, a political commentator, said “while the Moon government gained power by enlisting public support with its values of fairness after the previous Park Geun-hye administration’s downfall due to influence-peddling and corruption scandals, the recent controversies were no different from those under the previous administration”.
The younger generation cannot possibly be happy with such a state of affairs either. After all, it is embarrassing to see the former and current Ministers of Justice exercising double standards.
There have been increased calls from the opposition for an independent investigation into Choo Mi-ae’s case and for her resignation. They are demanding that Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl (who the Justice Minister is not on good terms with) and his team take charge of the investigation and ensure Choo Mi-ae’s supporters are not allowed to interfere with it due to their biases.
On September 9, the main opposition party called on President Moon Jae-in to take a stand on the Justice Minister’s case. “The President appears to be condoning this matter, but we ask that he make the decision to swiftly resolve it,” Kim Chong-in, the interim leader of the party said. In accordance with the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act of Korea, it is illegal to trade in influence in processes related to “physical examination for conscripts, assignment to a military unit, appointment or any other matters”. However, “it also identifies seven categories of requests to which the Act does not apply”. “These exceptions have been criticized as vague, lacking clarity and likely creating loopholes for public officials and others”. The Act essentially prohibits improper solicitations to public officials. But due to the aforementioned exceptions, it could be hard to prosecute certain individuals.
Despite ongoing public scrutiny, the Blue House has chosen to remain silent on the issue. And it appears that the leading Democratic Party of Korea continues to view the case against Choo Mi-ae as a politically motivated attack without any facts to back up the allegations.
Still, President Moon Jae-in’s and his party’s approval ratings have dropped amid the latest scandal involving the current Minister of Justice, and it will be interesting to see how this story will end.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.