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Opinion

Cho Kuk controversy highlights South Korea's political double standards

President Moon Jae-in is happy enough for rumors to fell opponents

| South Korea

When he appointed university professor and former aide Cho Kuk as minister of justice in early September -- despite corruption allegations involving Cho's family -- South Korea's President Moon Jae-in acknowledged the controversy, but said he was confident that the new minister was not himself guilty of any criminality.

"If I fail to appoint him because of suspicions, I will be setting a bad precedent," President Moon said.

For lovers of liberal democracy and the rule of fair and rational law, this was a reasonable and, indeed, a welcome comment. Moon was correct: an accusation is evidence of dislike, not of criminality.

It did not help Moon's case, however, when prosecutors -- who fall under Cho's supervision -- raided Cho's house on September 23 over the allegations, which include improperly securing his daughter's place at a prestigious university.

The bigger problem with Moon's comment, though, was that he has already set a bad precedent: as an opposition politician, he railed against candidates for government office in the same situation as Cho. It is clear he does believe that unproven suspicions are sufficient cause to have a candidate withdrawn.

In fact, Moon believed suspicions alone were sufficient to have a sitting president impeached. The investigation into former President Park Geun-hye in 2016 was incomplete when the National Assembly, swayed by street protests, impeached her. Nothing had been proven.

Moon, then leading the opposition, not only failed to step in front of the mob and remind them that their protests were only "suspicions," not evidence of presidential wrongdoing. But he in fact characterized what was happening to her as if it were a revolution in which justice was being well served.

Of course, we live in the age of social media and should not be stupid. We can see the difference between the two cases from the President's point of view: Cho is his comrade, while Park was his opponent.

But what he may not understand is that those in Korea who occupy the wide central space between the democratic left and the democratic right, and indeed many in those camps, reject such double standards. This raises a question: how ethical do Koreans want their leaders to be?

This is not such a simple question. It seems to me, as an outsider who is constantly perplexed by Korean politics, that it is one that Korean society has not answered for itself.

Clearly, nobody wants criminals running the country. Even though several of the democratically-elected presidents before Moon were jailed or had family members jailed after their terms -- with the exception of Roh Moo-hyun, whose suicide ended the investigation into his family -- most Koreans do not consider them to have been criminals.

At the same time, in keeping with their Confucian history and its emphasis on ethics, Koreans arguably expect their political leaders to be purer than it is possible to be in such a competitive, rough-and-tumble society.

Above all, Koreans need strong effective leaders. The political culture is fractious and people are more obsessed by hierarchy and what other people think of them than in most countries. In such an environment, it is easy for decision-makers to get stuck trying to accommodate conflicting opinions.

Belying his smile, Moon fits the mold. His standout characteristic is stubbornness. Despite failed economic policies, trade wars, North Korean missiles and hostile newspaper editorials, Moon sticks to his economic and diplomatic policies in the same way he stood by Cho.

This contradiction between strength and virtue manifests itself in the way political parties cynically use ethics not as a measure for their own people but as a weapon against opponents. For example, nomination hearings for government ministers feature attacks on the ethics of candidates with the sole purpose of embarrassing the president for having made the choice.

Some so-called crimes, like owning second houses -- "speculating" -- changing addresses so their children can get into better schools or having children who take foreign citizenship, are trivial.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the system of justice is itself messy. It is too subject to emotion. Justice can be fickle. Reform of this system is what is truly important about the Cho nomination.

Koreans want a system that is fairer, more decent, more forgiving and which does not bend in the direction of the prevailing political wind. Its true test will be not how it treats its friends, but the fairness with which it treats opponents.

Is this something that an administration with such glaring double standards can achieve?

(c) Onsite Studios

Michael Breen is the author of "The New Koreans."

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