Daughter’s academic scandal hits justice minister nominee

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Tuesday carried out simultaneous raids on five universities and facilities linked to the probe into allegations that the daughter of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s current nominee for justice minister was ‘wrongly’ cited as the author of a medical research paper and may have used that citation to gain admission to prestigious Korea University in Seoul.

The nomination hearing by the National Assembly of justice minister nominee Cho Kuk, who also holds the post of law professor at Seoul National University, is set to be heard on 2-3 September.

According to Korea's Yonhap News Agency, the raids took place at Dankook University, Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University, Kongju National University, where the daughter participated in an internship in 2009, and the Busan Medical Center, whose incumbent head, Roh Hwan-Jung, provided her with scholarships while he was serving as head of Pusan National University Yangsan Hospital in 2016-18.

SNU's Graduate School of Environmental Studies was also raided, as she received scholarships worth KRW8 million (US$6,600) before she moved to the Pusan National University (PNU) medical school, where she is currently enrolled as a medical student.

"As public concern has been raised over the allegations against Cho, we decided to conduct the raids to clarify the facts," a prosecutor said.

Before the raids, Dankook University announced that it would conduct an internal investigation.

The alleged irregularities surrounding Cho's daughter’s research paper have fired the public imagination – in particular because Cho has been a forthright campaigner for equality in education.

Cho’s 28-year-old daughter, Cho Min, who currently attends the graduate medical school at PNU, was listed in 2009 as primary author of an English-language paper published in the Korean Journal of Pathology.

At the time she was still a high school student and had just completed a two-week internship at Dankook University’s College of Medicine. Dankook is a private research university. A total of six authors were cited in the paper.

Mounting public anger

In the face of mounting public anger, an investigation may also be launched by Korea University into whether she used the paper to embellish her record in order to gain admission to the prestigious university in 2010, and from where she graduated with a bachelor degree.

Korea University students held a candlelight protest on Friday 23 August on the Seoul campus demanding clarification by the university regarding allegations about how Cho’s daughter was admitted. There were also protests held outside the campus gates by parent groups who say powerful and connected individuals should not be able to bypass gruelling exam-based admissions to elite universities.

A separate student protest was held at SNU on Friday 23 August demanding that Cho leave the university and abandon his bid to become justice minister. The allegations “raise questions of whether Cho is qualified to remain as a professor, let alone to be a nominee for justice minister”, said a student from SNU at the protest.

A survey of some 1,800 SNU students, conducted by the online student community SNULife and released on 26 August, found that 95% of students said Cho was “not fit for the justice minister position at all”.

Dankook ethics committee meeting

Kang Nae-won, Dankook University’s head of academic affairs, said after a special meeting of the university’s ethics committee on 22 August that a preliminary investigation would be launched to review all the allegations aired by local media.

A preliminary investigation was required because of the large number of different allegations, which demanded “a lot of basic data” to look into, he said.

In a statement Dankook University said: “We plan to focus on whether there are cases that qualify and plan to address them according to the findings.”

If the committee finds that Cho’s daughter received undue credit for the paper, any faculty members responsible could be penalised. Any faculty member allowing a person to be listed as an author without contributing to the study is against the university’s research ethics code, the university clarified.

According to some leaked reports, the laboratory work on which the paper was based was carried out several years before publication, when Cho’s daughter would have been a child.

Dankook University has already clarified that the internship in which Cho’s daughter participated was an “informal programme conducted by individual teachers, not an official programme at the university hospital level”. It will launch a separate review process into such programmes “to prevent abuse”.

If the paper has to be withdrawn from the journal, it could lead to a separate investigation by Korea University to assess the importance of the paper in granting admission to the College of Life Sciences and Biotechnology in 2010. Cho’s daughter applied to the university under an early admissions scheme.

Korea University has not ruled out cancelling the admission retroactively if the admissions process is found to be flawed.

PNU has also said it is holding an internal probe into the admissions process of Cho’s daughter to the medical school. But it has already confirmed that she did not mention the paper in her admissions application.

Amid a huge outcry by medical students, many of whom work for years to get research papers published alongside gruelling clinical work schedules, the Korean Academy of Medical Sciences issued a statement on 22 August after an emergency board meeting.

The Academy said the professor who oversaw the research needed to clarify how he decided on the order of the names of the authors and urged Dankook University and the other five authors to clarify the allegations.

It was unusual, the Academy said, for Cho’s daughter to be described as a member of the Medical Science Institute at Dankook University without also mentioning she was a student at Hanyoung Foreign Language High School at the time.

The school is an elite institution with a special curriculum and it has been pointed out that Cho himself has spoken out against the existence of elite schools which President Moon wants to eliminate.

The opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and the Bareunmirae Party have now filed a criminal complaint against Cho, a close associate of President Moon, and Cho’s daughter, saying that the allegations went beyond just ethics.

They asked public prosecutors to investigate the circumstances surrounding the authorship of the research paper and whether it was used to gain admission to Korea University and PNU, in contravention of tough anti-corruption laws.

“We are checking if she did actually make a contribution enough to be listed as the first author and if she used the paper as part of her application,” an LKP official said.


LKP officials also said prosecutors must investigate whether Cho pulled strings in order for his daughter to receive scholarships at SNU and PNU. Cho’s daughter received scholarships worth KRW12 million (US$10,000) for three years between 2016 and 2018 while at PNU’s graduate medical school.

According to media reports, the scholarships were from a private foundation run by a professor rather than by the university itself.

According to details from PNU’s graduate school of medicine, just seven people have received the scholarship established by Roh Hwan-Jung, head of the Busan Medical Center, since it was launched in 2013.

But Cho’s daughter was the only one to be awarded KRW2 million for six consecutive semesters from 2016 to 2018 after entering the university in 2015 – and even though she flunked twice. The others received scholarships of KRW1.5 million for just one semester.

According to media reports that first surfaced on 18 August in a local newspaper, while the other scholarship recipients were recommended by the school, Cho’s daughter was “handpicked”.

Roh has said in local media that he approved the scholarship “to encourage her” after she flunked the first semester. Cho has claimed that he was not aware of how the scholarship was awarded.

Political fallout

Although Cho has been targeted by opposition politicians since his nomination on 9 August as part of President Moon’s cabinet reshuffle, with the opposition alleging a slew of shady financial dealings, claims of tax evasion and real estate deals, it is the allegations regarding his daughter that have caused the biggest uproar.

Some students compared the case of Cho’s daughter to the illegal admissions scandal involving the daughter of Choi Soon-Sil, a confidante of impeached former president Park Geun-hye, currently serving time in jail for corruption.

Choi’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra received preferential treatment in admission to Ewha Womans University in a case that led to the resignation of the university’s president and criminal charges against several Ewha professors in 2017.

Cho has come out fighting, dismissing the allegations as “outright fake news”, adding that “there was no procedural problem” regarding her admissions, and claiming that his daughter “actively participated in the research and greatly helped in translating into English” to gain her citation.

He has said: “I will clearly explain the allegations raised so far at a parliamentary nomination hearing.” Cho’s team said on 20 August, when the allegations first surfaced, that his daughter’s contribution was “legitimate”.

“She commuted a long way every day, actively participated in the experiences and contributed to writing the paper in English,” his team said. “She received a good evaluation from the professor as she completed the paper with other participants.” Regarding being named as first author, he said that all judgements were made by the professor.

While the president does not require the approval of the Assembly to appoint a minister, the issue is proving to be a huge embarrassment – and some party members say privately it could lose the ruling party the votes of young people in national elections scheduled for next year.

This story was updated on Tuesday 27 August 2019.