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Politics

South Korea's Moon appoints aide as justice minister amid backlash

Cho Kuk is under fire over a litany of allegations of influence peddling

Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk attends a hearing at the national assembly in Seoul last week.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday formally appointed Cho Kuk, a close aide, as justice minister, in a move that risks a public and political backlash because of misconduct allegations against the president's old acquaintance.

Cho is under fire over a litany of allegations, including claims of shady family investments, using connections to get his daughter a prestigious internship and pulling strings to help her get into a top medical school.

Moon defended his pick after an inauguration ceremony later Monday. "It would set a bad example if I withdrew the appointment based on just allegations," Moon said. "I want to let minister Cho Kuk complete reforms of powerful institutions."

The scandal has divided the public. Over 50% of respondents to a recent poll opposed Cho's appointment, but about 90% of those who favor Moon supported it.

With Cho viewed as a potential presidential candidate -- as well as being a key player in prosecutorial reform efforts -- Moon had to keep his fervent supporters onside. But having come into office in 2017 with a pledge to stamp out corruption, the whiff of hypocrisy may lose the president some public support.

Park Sung-min, a political consultant and head of Min Consulting, said Moon's approval rate may now drop below 40% as people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, see the appointment as unjust.

"People who opposed Cho's appointment may withdraw their support for the president as they may believe that the decision is against the Moon Jae-in government's spirit," said Park.

On Friday, the National Assembly hosted a confirmation hearing, raising questions over the allegations. Cho denied most of them. The scholar-turned-politician apologized for hurting young people's hearts with his daughter's internships, but insisted that they were not illegal.

On the same day, prosecutors indicted Cho's wife, Chung Kyung-shim, on suspicion of manipulating an award from the president of Dongyang University where she works as a professor. Unlike on previous occasions, spouses of ministers to be inaugurated were not invited to Monday's ceremony.

Cho is a professor of law at Seoul National University, the nation's top school, and has long been affiliated with leftist causes -- in the early 1990s, he was arrested under South Korea's anti-communist National Security Law.

He is reputed to be one of the president's most trusted aides, and was a vocal supporter of Moon's first run for president in 2012. They both have backgrounds in law, and lived in the southern city of Busan. Before accepting the nomination, Cho served as Moon's secretary for civil affairs.

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