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Politics

Moon heads for showdown with South Korea's powerful prosecutors

Crusade intensifies as family of new justice minister is under investigation

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, appointed Cho Kuk justice minister on Sept. 9.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- The new South Korean justice minister appointed by President Moon Jae-in wasted no time in pursuing the administration's goal of reforming the country's prosecutors office, all while his family is under investigation over corruption allegations.

Cho Kuk, who assumed the post as the nation's top law official on Monday, ordered the creation of a prosecutorial reform team that same day. On Wednesday, Cho expressed his intent to bolster oversight of prosecutors.

This puts Cho on a collision course with state prosecutors, who have launched an investigation into whether his daughter was enrolled in an elite medical school through illicit means.

Cho's wife, Chung Kyung-sim, was indicted Sept. 6, accused of using her position as a professor at Dongyang University to forge an award that helped her daughter gain acceptance to Pusan National University's department of medicine. Chung's trial could start by the end of this month.

Prosecutors also are looking into a private investment fund linked to Cho's family. As part of that probe, investigators on Wednesday questioned an individual who is alleged to have helped Chung move a computer out of her university office as well as replace a hard drive at a home computer.

But prosecutors suffered a setback that same day when a judge in Seoul denied an arrest warrant targeting the head of the fund. Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl has directed investigators to work through Chuseok, the three-day public holiday that started Thursday.

Meanwhile, Cho has signaled an aggressive effort to overhaul South Korea's justice system. The new unit responsible for prosecutorial reforms is led by the Justice Ministry official in charge of human rights, who was part of a group of progressive lawyers.

Cho's appointment to lead the ministry remains controversial among the South Korean public. Moon had persisted in supporting his longtime acquaintance despite the corruption probe.

"We will reform the entrenched interests that have frustrated our citizens, and also the system that has been the source of irrationality," Moon said during Cho's inauguration ceremony Monday.

The speech by Moon, who once worked as a lawyer, echoed sections of a memoir in which he lambastes "political prosecutors" for failing to uphold the principle of neutrality.

South Korea's state prosecutors have wide-ranging authority to investigate and charge people with a host of crimes. Moon, along with other former activists who protested the military government in the 1980s, have memories how prosecutors assisted in their violent suppression.

Most of South Korea's presidents have faced criminal allegations involving themselves or family members once out of office. Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye, now sits in prison.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal and Moon's political mentor, attempted to push through prosecutorial reforms, but failed. After completing his term in 2008, prosecutors under conservative President Lee Myung-bak questioned Roh the following year over bribery suspicions. Shortly after his interrogation, Roh committed suicide by jumping into a ravine.

Lee, who left office in 2013, was sentenced to prison last year in an embezzlement case.

The South Korean public appears hungry for changes to the prosecutorial system. In a 2017 poll by Gallup Korea, prosecutors tied with large companies as the second-least-trusted institution, with the National Assembly ranking as the worst.

However, the scandal surrounding Cho has damaged the Moon administration's image of integrity. If the investigation widens to Cho himself, or the probe uncovers more skeletons, the presidential Blue House could risk losing voter confidence ahead of the general election in April 2020.

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