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South Korean scandal casts shadow on Seoul's 'Gangnam Left' elite

Moon's pick as justice minister is alleged to have peddled influence

SEOUL -- South Korean rapper Psy's 2012 megahit "Gangnam Style" gave the glitzy Seoul district global recognition. Now, a domestic political scandal is once more putting the country's wealthiest address under the spotlight.

President Moon Jae-in's pick for justice minister, Cho Guk, is under fire over a litany of allegations of misconduct. They include claims of shady family investments, using connections to get his daughter a prestigious internship and pulling strings to help her get into a top university.

Cho, an old acquaintance of the president, denied the allegations at a news conference on Monday that he called after his confirmation hearings for the post fell through due to political wrangling over the witness list. The scandal also threatens to undermine Moon's image as a corruption fighter.

Also under scrutiny at Cho's briefing was South Korea's so-called Gangnam Left. The phrase is a jab at politicians who advocate leftist policies such as the redistribution of wealth, but are dogged by allegations of greed and corruption in their private lives.

The name comes from the district of Gangnam in southern Seoul, the wealthiest area of the country and home to many of the nation's elite.

Kang Joon-man, a professor at Chonbuk National University and author of a 2011 book entitled "Gangnam Left," says the term refers to "people who think like leftists but live like Gangnam people," with Gangnam being used as shorthand for well-off people with extravagant lifestyles, regardless of whether they live in the district.

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.

In his 2010 book "Progessive Power Plan," Cho wrote of the need for a society where "upward mobility is not blocked," adding, "Progressives are on the side of the weak and the poor. In a terrible society, the household where someone is born determines their life path."

The political opposition is accusing Cho of hypocrisy, saying that details of his private life show he is not committed to fairness or justice.

"He owned several apartments while he railed against speculators, he insisted on educational equality while sending his children to special schools," wrote Ko Dae-hoon, a member of the editorial board at the center-right Joongang Ilbo newspaper. "It was all an illusion, and the absurdity makes it even more disgusting."

On Monday, Cho argued that his background ought not to preclude him from serving as justice minister.

"It's true that I was born with a silver spoon and I know that people call me a Gangnam Leftist," he said. "I still think it would be good to make our society more fair."

Seoul National University law professor Cho Guk, third from left, campaigns for a Democratic Party candidate during parliamentary elections in 2012.    © Reuters

In South Korea, the president has the authority to appoint a minister without the opposition's approval, making the confirmation hearings mere formalities. Local media reported Tuesday that the government was moving ahead on the process of appointing Cho, with the aim of installing him by next week.

The issue has become a headache for Moon, who rode to power in 2017 after a sprawling corruption and influence-peddling scandal led to the downfall of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

In his inauguration speech, Moon pledged to "try to create a world without privileges and foul play."

But Cho is not the first Moon administration official to be accused of misconduct. In March, Moon's spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, resigned under pressure after he was found to have made a speculative real estate purchase worth more than $2 million in a neighborhood slated for redevelopment.

"The hearings undergone by Moon's cabinet appointees have given everyone quite an education into the extraordinary acquisitiveness and tax-dodging ingenuity of the Gangnam Left," Korea expert Brian Myers wrote in a blog post.

If Cho's appointment is completed, he will be tasked with executing Moon's plan to reform the prosecution system. Moon is setting up an independent unit within the prosecution to investigate allegations of misconduct by high-ranking officials, and to cede some of the prosecution's investigative authority to the police.

The opposition argues that Moon is seeking to establish powers that would allow him to dig up dirt on, and prosecute, political opponents. Moon says that officials in his government will not be exempt from the unit's purview, and the unit is necessary to prevent collusion between prosecutors and politicians.

For some, the takeaway of the furor surrounding Cho is the extent to which the Gangnam-based elite still dominates organs of power in South Korea.

Park Jong-seon, a columnist for the weekly magazine of the right-wing Chosun Ilbo newspaper, wrote that Cho's case illustrated how, "To be a leader in Korea, regardless of whether you are right or left wing, you have to have come from a prestigious university."

"In any case, it's clear that our politics have become an occupation for the elite," he added.

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