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Politics

Moon's image as corruption fighter tarnished by aide's scandal

Public disapproval exceeds 50% for first time as prosecutors raid schools

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is accused of trying to protect Cho Kuk, a candidate for justice minister.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in is facing heavy criticism over a string of misconduct allegations against a close aide, a major blow to his political brand built on transparency and a rejection of entrenched interests.

Moon's disapproval rating now tops 50% for the first time. Critics claim the president decided to end an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan to steer the public's attention away from former senior secretary Cho Kuk, who is in the running to become justice minister.

Cho was appointed as senior secretary for civil affairs in May 2017 when Moon took office, a post that gave him influence over prosecutors and other legal authorities. Moon was eager to place an outsider in the role, amid criticism that prosecutors had abused their power.

But Cho now is accused of using his influence to have his daughter listed as one of the authors of a medical thesis, which helped her gain admission to the prestigious Korea University in Seoul. She later entered medical school in Busan, where she apparently received a scholarship despite less-than-stellar grades.

The scandal follows allegations that the Cho family tried to avoid paying inheritance taxes and invested in a private equity fund despite his post in the public sector.

On Tuesday, prosecutors raided Korea University and Pusan National University in Busan, as well as a family-run foundation that operates a school.

"I hope all allegations will be cleared through the prosecutors' investigation," Cho told reporters that day.

Cho was a critic of how the wealthy seem to dominate South Korea's most prestigious universities, and he argued for greater access for less affluent students. The possibility that Cho treated his daughter as an exception has particularly incensed younger generations, sparking protests at Korea University and the University of Seoul.

Moon drew disapproval from 50.4% of respondents in the latest Realmeter poll.

The big question is whether Cho remains a candidate to become justice minister. South Korea's National Assembly will hold a hearing on Monday and Tuesday to consider his qualifications, though Moon has the authority to appoint him regardless of the findings.

The opposition Liberty Korea Party hopes the scandal will help it regain momentum. Party floor leader Na Kyung-won said Tuesday that the current investigation is not enough, and she called for appointing a special prosecutor to the case.

The Moon administration continues to back Cho. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea slammed the LKP on Tuesday for broad personal attacks against Cho and his family. But the party also showed some reservations, urging lawmakers to make a decision based on Cho's abilities and qualifications.

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