Crusading reformer divides South Koreans

SEOUL — For weeks, huge crowds have been gathering in Seoul to denounce a man named Cho Kuk — or to defend him.

Cho, South Korea’s justice minister, and his family are being investigated over a number of allegations, ranging from financial malfeasance to pulling strings to get a daughter into medical school. Demonstrators, most of them conservatives who oppose President Moon Jae-in, have rallied in large numbers to demand Cho’s arrest and Moon’s impeachment.

“Lord, please save this country by dragging Moon Jae-in out of office as soon as possible,” the Rev. Jeon Kwang-hoon, head of the Christian Council of Korea, said at an enormous rally this month.


But others see the issue very differently. Cho had been tasked by Moon with overhauling the national prosecutors’ office — the same agency now investigating him. Progressive supporters of the president have held increasingly large counterprotests, accusing the prosecutors of targeting Cho to preserve their own power.

“Cho Kuk means prosecutors reform. He is our flag, he is our general,” Kim Min-woong, a political philosopher who teaches at Kyung Hee University, said during a rally this month. “We can win when we defend our flag and our general.”

The protests recall the huge weekly rallies in 2016 that preceded the impeachment and ouster of Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Moon has not been accused of wrongdoing, and his removal seems a distant prospect at best.

But the demonstrations show how polarized South Korean politics have become, and they cast a new light on the prosecutors’ office — one of the country’s most powerful and disliked institutions.

Prosecutors in South Korea have powers well beyond those of their counterparts in most countries. They decide exclusively who is indicted and who is not (South Korea has no grand jury system). They also have authority over the police, and they reserve investigations of politically sensitive cases for themselves, leaving the police to handle more mundane matters.


Surveys have found that they are deeply mistrusted by the public, often seen as doing the political bidding of whoever is in power. For decades, every president — including Moon — has vowed to take politics out of the agency, only to be later accused of using it to harass their political opponents or divert attention from domestic crises.

“South Korea is a veritable republic of prosecutors,” said Ha Tae-hoon of Korea University School of Law, who called the agency a “beast” that had defied democratic progress.

Few have condemned the prosecutors’ shortcomings more vigorously than Cho.

After Cho joined Moon’s staff in 2017 as his chief legal counsel, many saw him as a possible successor. But his image soured drastically soon after Moon named him justice minister in August. News outlets began reporting on allegations of misdeeds by Cho or members of his family, including embezzlement and trying to destroy evidence.

Most of the accusations remain unsubstantiated. But his wife has been indicted on a charge of forging a certificate to help their daughter get into medical school. Cho has denied any lawbreaking by family members, but he acknowledged that his daughter had benefited from advantages denied to other students — a sensitive matter in a country where anger over economic inequality runs high.

As public anger over the various accusations grew, the chief prosecutor, Yoon Seok-yeol — another Moon appointee — assigned about 20 prosecutors to investigate Cho and his family.


His apartment was raided and his children questioned. His wife, already under indictment, has been repeatedly interviewed by prosecutors seeking possible links to a relative who has been arrested on suspicion of embezzlement.

As Cho’s supporters see it, the prosecutors are punishing him for finally enacting some of the reforms to their office that presidents have been promising for years.

But critics accuse Cho of trying to change the subject, noting that most of those actions were taken only after the allegations against him began getting attention.

The rallies have drawn hundreds of thousands of people, at least; organizers on both sides say their crowds have topped 2 million. The anti-Cho rallies have been led by evangelical Christian activists, joined by other conservatives — mostly older people — who have long opposed Moon’s economic policies and his conciliatory stance toward North Korea. A recent protest led by Jeon resembled a Christian revival meeting, with invocations of God’s blessing, choruses of “Hallelujah!” and staff members weaving through the crowd with donation boxes.

The pro-Cho crowds are more diverse, including many young, urban white-collar workers. Rock bands have performed at many of the rallies, with people in the crowd singing along and waving signs that read “We are Cho Kuk!”

“Prosecutors think that if they can force Cho Kuk out, they can stop the reform efforts and return to business as usual,” said Hwang Gyo-ik, a newspaper columnist, during a rally in support of the justice minister Saturday.