Science minister candidate dropped on ethical grounds

Cho Dong-Ho, a professor of electrical engineering at South Korea’s prestigious science and technology institution KAIST, was withdrawn by President Moon Jae-in as his preferred nominee for science minister after it was found that Cho had attended an international science conference described by recent media investigations to be of dubious academic value.

Such conferences run by private companies have been used by academics in Korea merely to boost their ‘overseas’ science experience. The Korean government has moved to stop government research funds being used in this way.

Yoon Do-han, the president’s senior secretary for public affairs, said on 30 March that Cho would not have been nominated if it had been known he had attended a “flaky overseas academic conference”, a reference to the 2017 World Biomarkers Congress in Madrid organised by OMICS International, based in India.

The United States Federal Trade Commission received a preliminary injunction from a federal court in 2017 ordering OMICS to cease “deceptive practices”.

Conferences organised by OMICs and other such companies had been investigated by the Seoul-based Korea Center for Investigative Journalism-Newstapa team and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists last year and was followed by a government investigation into research funds being used for such purposes.

Moon nominated seven new members of his cabinet, including Cho, on 8 March in a wide-ranging reshuffle, his third since taking office in May 2017. Another nominee, for the minister of land, infrastructure and transport, withdrew himself after being accused by legislators of real estate speculation.

The president’s office had said that Cho, an expert in developing wireless recharge technology for electric vehicles, had been nominated because of his “expertise in 5G technology” so he could oversee the roll-out of 5G services in Korea expected to begin next month.

Unaware of attendance

The Blue House, which houses the presidential offices, appeared unaware of Cho’s attendance at the OMICS conference at the time of his nomination to the ministerial post.

“Nominee Cho Dong-Ho did not reveal his participation in the non-performing overseas conference and it also was not revealed in background checks by the education ministry and other related organisations, which is why [he] was not screened out in our verification process," the presidential office spokesperson said, explaining the nomination.

He added however, that other points identified during the confirmation process by the National Assembly had been identified during the verification process before the nominations.

“It was pointed out in the process of his confirmation hearing that the nominee may not meet the eyes of the people, and [the president] decided to withdraw his nomination after due deliberation,” he said.

Legislators have accused presidential advisors of being lax in their vetting of Cho as a proper screening would have prevented his nomination to the science minister post on ethical grounds and prevented the humiliating grilling that Cho faced in the National Assembly last week.

Newspaper leak

Confirmation hearings by the National Assembly began on 25 March and lasted three days, but Cho’s attendance at the Madrid conference in December 2017 emerged in a newspaper leak.

According to reports from the confirmation hearings, Cho attended the OMICS meeting to collect documentation related to biomarkers and other research trends and attended keynote speeches by experts in genomics and molecular biology. However, records show that his attendance at the conference lasted eight days.

Lawmakers, particularly from the opposition parties, strongly opposed Cho’s nomination and said his conduct pointed to lax individual research ethics.

During the confirmation hearings Cho was also unable to clarify questions raised by lawmakers on records of some 30 overseas business trips with his wife, possibly using state-funded research money, and trips made on behalf of KAIST to cities close to where his sons were studying in the United States.

For example, lawmakers revealed that Cho visited San Diego six times since 2014, attending an electric car charging facility, health care, auto show, and optics-related conferences. At the time, his eldest son was at the University of California, San Diego graduate school.

Cho acknowledged that he was attending his son’s graduation ceremony on one of the business trips and apologised.

Questions over spending on sons

According to the hearing, Cho travelled seven times to the cities where his sons were studying, and sent abroad about KRW700 million (US$617,000) some 23 times to two sons in the US over a period of seven years. Cho repeatedly apologised over the high standard of living enjoyed by his sons while studying in the US.

Cho admitted to lawmakers, “I think there was a problem”, while being quizzed about his sons, in particular the purchase of luxury Porsche and Mercedes-Benz vehicles owned by his two sons.

Money transfers to students abroad can breach the country’s foreign exchange control laws which make it illegal to send remittances to universities exceeding US$100,000 a month.

The National Assembly’s confirmations are non-binding on the president, who has in the past overridden lawmakers’ objections. However, the president’s own withdrawal of Cho’s nomination has caused some difficulties for the government as it could take at least a month for the National Assembly to hold confirmation hearings on a new candidate, which could disrupt plans for the 5G roll-out.