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How South Korea's Moon got the justice minister he wanted

Support from civic groups lets president weather storm over Cho's appointment

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, poses with his new justice minister, Cho Kuk, in Seoul on Sept. 9. (Yonhap/Kyodo)

TOKYO -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in has rammed through the appointment of his scandal-tainted aide Cho Guk as justice minister despite criticism from the opposition and the public.

Moon pushed ahead with the decision, helped by the silence of South Korea's powerful civil society groups, betting that a pledge to reform the judicial system will restore his flagging popularity.

The outcry over Cho has echoes of "Choi Soon-sil gate," which came to light in 2016. Choi, a longtime friend of then-president Park Geun-hye, was accused of meddling in state affairs. Opinion polls at the time revealed that more than 80% of respondents favored impeaching Park, and her approval rate nose-dived to just 5%. From there, it took little time for South Korea's first sitting president to be ousted.

Cho has been dubbed "onion man" because of the layers of scandal that surround him. He is accused of abusing his position as a presidential aide to secure a place for his daughter at a prestigious university, as Choi did. He is also suspected of helping his son avoid military conscription, earning still more public ire.

Opinions are divided, however. One poll published Sept. 9 showed 52% of those surveyed opposed to Cho's appointment, while 45% were in favor. Given the massive candlelight vigils in Seoul calling for Park's resignation three years ago, the relatively muted public reaction over Cho seems odd. Even more surprisingly, support for Cho's appointment has risen over time.

The storm appears to be passing, giving Moon another reason to stick by his nominee. And unlike the Park-Choi scandal, where civil society groups led the charge against the president, this time they have rallied behind Cho.

Civil society groups have an outsize influence on South Korean politics. One of the biggest changes following the end of military rule and the country's democratization in 1987 was the coming together of civic groups.

The candlelight protests were organized by Emergency Citizen Action for Park Geun-hye's Resignation, an umbrella group made up of about 1,500 civic bodies. In South Korea, progressive groups and labor unions -- known as some of the most combative in the world -- mobilize citizens. These well-funded groups set up stages at street rallies, provide protesters with candles and placards, and lead chants to attract bigger crowds.

Groups that led protests against conservative governments have remained silent about the scandals involving Cho, himself a longtime member of a left-wing civil society organization. These groups are said to be united in defending him against attacks from conservatives. Although rallies have been held at some universities to demand Cho's resignation, according to one South Korean expert, "They are not organized. Without the backing of a large organization, the protests won't grow."

The fight over Cho's appointment pits the presidential office against prosecutors, which puts the struggle in a traditional left-right framework. And prosecutors have a poor reputation with the public.

People have long memories of how prosecutors worked with intelligence officials, helping military strongmen suppress human rights in South Korea. Prosecutors have the authority to investigate and file charges, and they are often criticized for abusing this power. The progressive Moon made prosecutorial reform part of his presidential campaign.

In a survey published in May 2017, soon after Moon took office, respondents said judicial reforms should be a top priority for the new president, rating it as more urgent than reforming politics, the media, labor rules or conglomerates. Public sentiment over the issue remains strong.

South Korean presidents are limited to one term. They usually become lame ducks as their five-year tenure nears an end. If Cho succeeds in curbing the power of prosecutors, he will win back public approval. And Moon, by extension, will be able to maintain his grip on power. This is the president's hope, according to a government source.

"I believe that [Cho] will faithfully fulfill his pledges, and people will acknowledge the fruits of his reforms," Moon said at an appointment ceremony at the presidential palace on Sept. 9.

This is a gamble. The protests that helped vault Moon to the presidency were driven by young people in search of change. Their response to the dispute over Cho could determine Moon's future.

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