When Cheong Wa Dae informed reporters covering the presidential office that President Moon Jae-in would soon release a special message Friday, some guessed it would be intended to announce the departure of embattled Justice Minister Cho Kuk.
A day before, it was disclosed that the minister talked to a prosecutor over the phone earlier last week, who was leading a prosecution raid on his house to seize evidence in connection with a probe into a string of fraud and corruption cases involving his family.
Opposition lawmakers claimed Cho might well be subject to impeachment as he apparently abused his power as justice minister by asking the prosecutor to finish the search quickly. Asked to express his view in a parliamentary session Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said that he thought the phone conversation was “not appropriate.”
Moon’s message, read by his spokesperson 1 1/2 hours after the prior notice, took aback many people by making public his displeasure with the prosecution.
Apparently addressing the way prosecutors have been probing suspicions connected to Cho’s family, Moon said it is important to exercise prosecutorial power in a restrained manner that respects human rights. He also urged the prosecution to recall that public demand is growing for reform of the powerful institution.
Notably, he made no mention of Cho’s inappropriate phone talk with the prosecutor.
Moon’s message prompted angry reactions from opposition parties, which described it as outright pressure on the prosecution and an attack on the nation’s judicial order.
Shortly after the message was announced, the prosecution issued a terse statement that reiterated its stance that it would carry forward the investigation in accordance with legal procedures as it has done so far.
Indeed, there were controversies in the past over what was deemed as the president’s bid to influence investigations. But Moon’s message marked an unprecedented case in which a president has made explicit interference in an individual investigation by taking issue with the probe methods.
In trying to defend his embattled justice minister, Moon went against his previous remarks and attitude.
When he gave a letter of appointment to the incumbent prosecutor general in July, he stressed the need to investigate powerful figures in his administration thoroughly if they come under suspicion. It can be said that the prosecution has followed Moon’s encouragement in investigating the ballooning scandal involving Cho’s family.
Cho’s wife, a professor, has been indicted on charges of fabricating a college president’s citation and other documents for use in her daughter’s university and medical school applications. His family members are also suspected of making dubious investments in a private equity fund. Cho denies any wrongdoing, but the possibility of his involvement in these and other suspected cases cannot yet be ruled out.
Moon’s emphasis on a restrained investigation respecting human rights rings hollow, given his silence on the suicides of officials in the previous administration, who had undergone what was criticized as the prosecution’s harsh investigation.
Cho, a former law professor and architect of the Moon administration’s prosecution reform plan, was appointed by Moon early this month to his current post to complete the mission. If there is the need to reform the prosecutorial organization, he must now be viewed by the public as the least qualified figure to do so.
Moon’s message is a clear signal that he will never dismiss Cho. He seems to believe caving in to calls for his dismissal might make him a lame-duck leader halfway into his five-year presidency.
After Moon released the message, his prime minister backed off from his previous position, denouncing the prosecution for conducting the investigation in an unreasonable way. Voices critical of Cho’s behavior within the ruling party have been overwhelmed by calls for identifying prosecution sources that leaked the justice minister’s phone talk with the prosecutor possibly to an opposition lawmaker.
Moon’s stance risks worsening the polarization of the electorate and paralyzing state affairs.
Separate rallies were held across the streets in Seoul at the weekend -- one to support Cho and the prosecutorial reform and the other to demand his resignation and arrest.
Moon seems to hope that clinging to Cho will help hold together his support groups and prevent him from becoming an ill-fated leader. The parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in the coming years will prove whether such a calculation is yet more wishful thinking.