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(2nd LD) Political bickering over justice minister nominee deepens amid snowballing scandals

Politics 17:09 August 21, 2019

(ATTN: CORRECTS typo in 13th para; ADDS byline, more info throughout)
By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Aug. 21 (Yonhap) -- Political parties clashed over the assessment of Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk's qualifications Wednesday amid snowballing corruption and fraud allegations involving him and his family.

Opposition parties urged him to step down, claiming Cho is not qualified to lead the ministry governing the prosecution and law observance. But the ruling Democratic Party (DP) condemned its rivals' attacks as a "political offensive."

A series of scandals ranging from academics-related allegations about Cho's daughter and his dubious hefty investment in a private equity fund to his previous involvement in a left-leaning group have made headlines since his nomination in a Cabinet shakeup on Aug. 9.

The allegations that his 28-year-old daughter received preferential treatment over academic activities have, in particular, sparked a public uproar.

Cho's daughter received scholarships worth 12 million won (US$9,928) at a medical school though she flunked twice.

A fresh allegation was raised Tuesday over whether his daughter was admitted to a prestigious university in Seoul through unlawful procedures.

She was registered as a primary writer for a pathology thesis when she took part in a two-week internship at a medical science institute as a high school student. Critics have raised suspicions that the academic paper may have helped her enroll in Korea University.

Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk (C) speaks to reporters over corruption and fraud allegations involving his family on Aug. 21, 2019. (Yonhap)

Cho, former senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, voiced progressive opinions on major social affairs and actively called for the need to root out social ills.

He wrote on his social media in the past that scholarships should be given based on financial needs, not on academic achievements.

Cho said Wednesday he will "humbly" accept public criticism but flatly rejected the allegations about his daughter's college admission as "fake news."

"I will clearly explain the allegations raised so far at a parliamentary confirmation hearing," Cho told reporters.

"But it is outright fake news. There was no procedural problem (about her admission)," he said.

The scandals surrounding Cho, a close confidant of President Moon Jae-in, may evolve into a major political issue as rival parties seek to take the initiative to sway voters' sentiment ahead of next year's general elections.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party called on Cho to voluntarily give up the nominee status.

"President Moon should withdraw his nomination and apologize to the public," LKP chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn said at a meeting with senior party members.

LKP floor leader Na Kyung-won said her party has decided to file a complaint with the prosecution over suspicion that his daughter received preferential treatment over college entrance.

"If this issue is left intact, the social value of fair (competition) will be completely destroyed," she claimed.

The ruling DP actively defended Cho, apparently out of concerns that his possible failure to be appointed could deal a serious blow to Moon who is heading toward the halfway point of his five-year tenure.

"The allegations raised by the LKP are groundless," DP floor leader Lee In-young said.

"The party should not make false accusations but cooperate in (setting the schedule for) a confirmation hearing so as to let the public assess Cho's qualifications," he said.

The DP insists the hearing should be held in August before a parliamentary regular session kicks off in September.

A confirmation hearing is widely seen as a formality, as the formal appointment of a minister-level official does not require approval from the National Assembly.

The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said certain allegations facing Cho are "overblown" in its first official stance about the latest row.

"Some allegations are reasonably raised, but some media outlets are exaggerating allegations. All speculation raised by the media so far will be verified (during the hearing process)," Yoon Do-han, senior Cheong Wa Dae secretary for public communication, told a press briefing.

Moon's choice of Cho apparently reflects the president's firm commitment to sweeping reform of the prosecution to guarantee its political neutrality and grant more investigation power and authority to police.

Hwang Kyo-ahn (C), chief of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, and other party lawmakers call on Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk to step down during their party meeting at the National Assembly on Aug. 21, 2019. (Yonhap)

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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