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[Newsmaker] Cho Kuk probe takes center stage at parliamentary audit of prosecutors’ office

An audit of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office at the National Assembly saw a heated confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties Monday.

The prosecutors in Seoul are leading a probe into corruption allegations surrounding Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s family, even as he has refused to quit.

Ruling Democratic Party lawmakers accused the prosecution of conducting a “politically charged” and “biased” probe and of colluding with a main opposition Liberty Korea Party lawmaker.

“The prosecution launched a probe into then-nominee Cho’s family Aug. 27, raiding some 30 places, and indicted the minister’s wife Sept. 6 -- the day of the confirmation hearing,” said Democratic Party Rep. Back Hye-ryun, calling the move “an attempt to derail his nomination” and “a transgression against the president’s appointment decision.”

Bae Seong-beom, chief of the Seoul prosecutors’ office, replied that the investigation was “not motivated by ulterior motives” but focused solely on “legal grounds.”

The Seoul central district’s head prosecutor added that although he is “not in the position to divulge details of an investigation in progress, the number (of raided places) is a bit of a stretch.” 

PARLIAMENTARY AUDIT -- Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office chief Bae Seong-beom responds to questions Monday during a parliamentary audit. (Yonhap)
PARLIAMENTARY AUDIT -- Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office chief Bae Seong-beom responds to questions Monday during a parliamentary audit. (Yonhap)

Fellow Democratic Party Rep. Kim Jong-min criticized Liberty Korea Party Rep. Joo Kwang-deok for publicizing a phone conversation between Cho and a prosecutor.

“This is a kind of information could have only been provided by a prosecutor,” Kim said.

Joo denied the accusations that he received an insider tip-off about the justice minister’s controversial phone call.

The conservative party lawmaker had previously raised concerns about potential obstruction of justice when it was revealed Cho had a telephone conversation with a prosecutor in charge of the search-and-seizure operation at the minister’s home Sept. 23.

He said he had elicited the information from Cho -- and that the minister had admitted to telling an on-duty prosecutor to “to take it easy” while the raid was going on.

Another opposition party Rep. Jeong Jeom-sig said the Moon Jae-in administration’s open disapproval of the prosecution’s latest probe could constitute “unprecedented efforts to interfere with proper administration of justice.”

“I would like to question the prosecution’s office director Bae,” Jeong said. “Throughout your 26 years of service as a prosecutor, was there any case where top Cheong Wa Dae officials including the prime minister and the president publicly condemn the prosecutors’ investigation?”

“Two former presidents -- Kim Dae-joong and Kim Young-sam -- also had to misfortune of having their children investigated while in office. But they did not criticize the investigative authorities,” he said.

The opposition party lawmakers also criticized the administration’s prosecution reform plans, which involve establishment of a separate investigative body to look into crimes committed by high-ranking public officials and their families.

“As long as the president holds the authority to nominate the body’s top positions, the executive branch will wield influence over it,” said Liberty Korea Party Rep. Jeong Kab-yoon.

“The president should dismiss Cho, if reform is what he really seeks.”

“Regardless of their political leanings, people are outraged against the establishment, and in the passionate determination to restore justice,” said minor opposition Bareun Mirae Party lawmaker Chae Yi-bai.

“The current prosecution system needs reform, and the probe into the minister’s (Cho’s) family should be conducted just as rigorously.”

The centrist conservative party lawmaker took issue with the Cho family’s involvement in a private equity fund while the minister served at Cheong Wa Dae as senior presidential secretary for civil affairs.

“This generates concerns of conflict at the highest level of the government,” Chae said. “I urge the prosecutors to conduct a thorough investigation.”

By Kim Arin (