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Scandal over justice minister galvanises South Koreans to protest

SEOUL (Reuters) - A growing corruption scandal involving a newly-appointed justice minister is bringing South Koreans from both ends of the political spectrum into the streets in numbers rarely seen since protests helped bring down former leader Park Geun-hye in 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk attends a hearing at the national assembly in Seoul, South Korea, September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

During recent holidays, tens of thousands of protesters staged demonstrations, including in downtown Seoul on Wednesday. The capital saw more candle-lit gatherings on Saturday.

An investigation into corruption allegations involving the family of justice minister Cho Kuk, who was appointed only in September, has led to major counter-demonstrations from the liberal end of the political spectrum.

These demonstrators see the investigation into Cho as politically motivated and are calling on the Moon administration to follow through with promised reforms. Many participated in the 2016-2017 candle-lit protests against Park, a conservative.

The reforms include improving oversight of prosecutors’ investigations, barring overly prolonged or late interrogations, and limiting investigations from spilling over into other probes, according to the Justice Ministry.

“The reason I am here to support minister Cho Kuk is that previous prosecution reform has failed,” said Kim Hyeon-jung, 61, who joined a demonstration in support of Cho near the public prosecutor’s office on Saturday.

On the other side, critics of liberal President Moon Jae-in routinely stage demonstrations in downtown Seoul. The corruption scandal involving Cho has further galvanised conservative groups after the political disaster of Park’s impeachment over bribery allegations.

Cho’s family is facing probes into irregular investments and his children’s’ favourable treatment in university admission.

Prosecutors summoned Cho’s wife for questioning for the fourth time on Saturday, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Cho has not denied the allegations against his family members but has apologised for disappointing the people. He said on Tuesday that he was still committed to reforming the prosecutor’s office.

“I will carry out my duty until the last moment I am in this position,” he told a news briefing.

Both conservative and liberal groups have staged large demonstrations, with each side trading competing claims over the size of their crowds.

“I’d never been to a protest before last Thursday,” 34-year-old Lee Soo-min, a mother of one from eastern Seoul, told Reuters while attending an opposition rally on Wednesday.

“But I got so angry over what a hypocrite Cho is,” she said while holding a sign calling for Cho to resign. “Moon is not listening to anyone except his supporters.”


The scandal has broadened into a wider political clash, said Shin Jin-wook, a professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

“The Minister Cho and prosecution reform issue became a catalyst for people to take collective action because it overlapped with older issues, such as differing views on national security, the economy, and politics,” Shin said.

“But because of the diverse views even within each camp, it’s still unclear what direction national opinion will take going forward,” he said.

Moon already faces public discontent over a sluggish economy and stalled diplomacy with North Korea. These, and the Cho scandal, have helped keep his approval numbers near historic lows.

His approval rating stood at 43%, according to a Gallup Korea survey conducted on Oct. 8 and 10.

Another survey conducted earlier this week by Realmeter put Moon’s approval rating at 42.5 percent, the lowest the pollster had registered since Moon became president.

Moon has continued to back Cho and told senior aides on Monday that although “public opinion can be divided on political issues, I do not think that means that national opinion is divided”.

Reporting by Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Daewoung Kim; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Paul Tait and James Drummond