Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets of southern Seoul on Saturday to condemn prosecutors for what they called their politically motivated investigation of scandal-ridden Justice Minister Cho Kuk and to demand prosecution reform.
Row upon row of seated participants, most of whom were not affiliated with a political party or campaign organization, filled Seocho-daero and Banpo-daero -- the boulevards stretching from intersection of the Seoul Central Prosecutor’s Office toward Gangnam Station, Seoul Arts Center and Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital.
|Banpo-daero is packed by people participating in a rally calling for the reform of the prosecution near the Seoul Central Prosecutors' Office in southern Seoul, Saturday. (Yonhap)|
Enraged by what they call a politically charged and unusually far-reaching investigation into the justice minister‘s family, they demanded the reform of the law enforcement agency to curb its power and make it politically neutral.
Holding up candles, they chanted “Reform the prosecution! protect Cho Kuk!” “We are Cho Kuk” and “Political prosecutors, back away!” as they watched large screens showing citizens making impromptu speeches on the main stage.
“I think it is a politically motivated and biased investigation targeting the justice minister. Prosecutors have never conducted such a detailed, deep investigation into cases,” said Lee Sun-hee, 40-year-old office worker, at the scene.
“The reform of the prosecution is needed as prosecutors are too closely linked to political power,” said Lee, who said she had wanted to show her support for the reform efforts by attending the rally as she sees rallies against the justice minister also gain steam.
They said Cho, whose wife is under investigation for alleged financial irregularities and has been charged with forging certificates to help her daughter’s university applications, is the right person to conduct the reform.
“For me, protecting Cho Kuk is protecting the reform efforts,” she said.
Prosecutors earlier this month conducted an 11-hour search-and-seizure operation at Cho’s home -- an unusually lengthy operation -- following raids on more than 20 locations in connection with the scandal.
Prosecutors called in Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-shim, for a second time on Saturday to question her over her alleged involvement in a private equity fund and academic fraud involving their children.
A relative of Cho, who prosecutors suspect as the de facto operator of Co-Link Private Equity Fund in which Cho’s family had invested, was indicted Thursday on charges of embezzlement and stock rigging.
The prosecution suspects Chung of being an accomplice to Cho.
In a separate investigation into Cho’s brother, prosecutors sought an arrest warrant for him on charges of dereliction of relation to recruitment.
Organized by radical right wing Our Republican Party, a counter rally was also held near the Seoul Prosecutors‘ Office and toward the north. Much smaller in scale, the crowd chanted “Arrest Cho Kuk!” and “ Moon Jae-in, resign!”
For some other participants, the ongoing investigation into Cho’s family is a reminder of late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, who took his own life while under investigation for bribery allegations involving his family.
“We lost the most people-friendly president (to the prosecution’s prosecution.) He died because of biased prosecutors and media. The situation is similar now. We cannot let that happen again,” said Lee Dong-geun, 49.
Placards reading “Let’s not cry anymore. Let’s protect this time. That’s our mission” with pictures of Roh, the incumbent President Moon, who was Roh’s close associate, and Justice Minister Cho on the back.
“Prosecutors are wielding so much power and they lost their sense of impartiality. I am here to protect our sovereignty by helping achieve the overhaul of the prosecution,” he said. “The allegations surrounding Cho are only allegations raised by the media.”
The rally, which is the third of its kind, is seeing an increase in the number of participants each time as counter rallies, which call for Cho’s resignation, also grow in number. Police refuse to release estimates of crowd size.
The Moon Jae-in administration has sought to redistribute the powers of the prosecution, which has the exclusive authority to open and close probes as well as file charges, as part of its judicial reform drive.
The government seeks to hand over more investigative authority to police and establish an independent body tasked with looking into corruption allegations involving high-ranking government officials. These measures require legislation in the National Assembly.
Cho was appointed justice minister despite fierce objections from most opposition parties. President Moon Jae-in has said Cho is the right person to push for reforms in the justice and law enforcement systems.
|A rally calling for Justice Minister Cho Kuk's resignation (foreground) is held near the Seoul Central Prosecutors' Office in southern Seoul, Saturday, while a rally in favor of Cho takess place in the background. (Yonhap)|
A manifestation of public outrage is palpable at rallies both in favor of and against Cho, laying bare a deep division in the country along ideological and generational lines.
The rally calling for Cho’s resignation of Cho on Oct. 3 in central Seoul was joined by mostly people in their 50s to 70s, with the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, ultraconservative Our Republican Party and some Protestant groups also in attendance.
At Saturday’s rally, on the other hand, most participants were in their 30s to 50s, many of whom also took to the streets to demand scandal-ridden former President Park Geun-hye step down and supported President Moon.
With the police withholding estimates of the numbers of rally participants, both sides appear to be inflating the number in an apparent attempt to demonstrate that their demand represents the majority view of the general public.
Organizers from both ends of rallies say they drew up to 3 million people to their respective rallies.