Justice minister appointed despite HE admissions probe

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has appointed Cho Kuk, his controversial choice for justice minister.

The announcement was made even as Seoul prosecutors widened their investigation into Cho’s family members as part of an ongoing probe into how Cho’s daughter managed to publish a research paper in a major academic journal while still a teenager, and whether it was used to help her gain admission into prestigious universities.

Documents have been seized from eight universities so far in a series of raids by prosecutors on the case.

The country has been gripped by the story of Cho’s daughter who was listed in 2009 as primary author of an English-language paper published in the Korean Journal of Pathology and also received scholarships despite twice failing a semester.

The Korean Society of Pathologists on 5 September retracted the paper. The society head Jang Se-Jin told the media the decision to rescind was because the author’s role was unclear, and because the paper did not have approval from the Institutional Review Board which assesses research ethics, though it was falsely stated that it did.

The paper identified Cho’s daughter as a researcher at the medical research institute at Dankook University although she was at high school at the time.

New strands to investigation

With new strands being added almost daily to the raft of allegations about the admissions scandal involving Cho’s daughter, the case is being held up by an incredulous public as an example of the dubious practices used and the lengths elites will go to, including using influential personal networks, to get their children into top universities and beat the country’s hugely competitive admissions system.

Cho’s daughter, Cho Min, cited the pathology paper as part of her application in 2010 to prestigious Korea University in Seoul under an early admissions programme designated for ‘global leaders’.

Korea University has said it would look into whether any discrepancies surrounding the research paper could lead to the cancellation of her degree there.

Cancelling the Korea University degree would lead to the voiding of her subsequent admission to Pusan National University (PNU), lawyers said. Cho’s daughter, who is now 28, is currently studying at PNU’s graduate school of medicine where she received scholarships despite failing twice.

Despite public anger at the revelations, President Moon said on Monday that there was "no confirmation of any clear illicit act" yet for which Cho should be held responsible. However, some lawmakers are concerned that as justice minister he will be reforming the prosecution service while prosecutors are investigating the case linked to his family.

More universities raided

Five universities were named as having being raided in August by prosecutors as part of the probe into the allegations surrounding Cho’s daughter. Last week it was revealed that the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) in Seoul was among the institutions raided, but not previously disclosed, bringing the total to six in August.

Cho’s daughter was admitted to KIST in July 2011 as an intern to assist another researcher. The internship was cited in her PNU application, but prosecutors are pointing to discrepancies with the stated details, including the length of the internship.

Last week another series of raids was carried out, among them Seoul National University’s College of Medicine where Cho’s daughter had applied to study medicine without success – the prosecution is said to be focusing on the documents submitted at the time; and the private Dongyang University in Yeongju, 230 km southeast of Seoul.

Dongyang University was raided as the investigation spread to the role of Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-sim, an English professor at Dongyang. Chung was formally indicted by the prosecution on 6 September, accused of fabricating a school president’s award certificate in 2012 to help her daughter enter medical school in 2014, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

The news agency added that state prosecutors had acted swiftly with the indictment, as a seven-year status of limitations over such fabrication was set to expire at midnight that day.

Dongyang University President Choi Sung-hae has denied approving or giving Cho’s daughter the award.

Choi revealed to JoongAng newspaper last week that on 4 September Chung had requested him to tell the media he had delegated the right to issue presidential citations to the head of an English language education centre that awarded it to her daughter, who claimed to have been a volunteer at the centre for teaching children from rural villages in Yeongju. The certificate was allegedly submitted as part of her application to PNU’s school of medicine.

According to admissions guides for institutions like PNU, applicants can only cite awards given by university presidents, governors, mayors or higher government officials including ministers.

Chung became a professor at Dongyang University in 2011 and head of the language centre in 2013, after the certificate was issued.

Cho insisted his daughter had taught English to middle and high school students at the centre and received the award for that.

At a confirmation hearing for Cho held on Friday 6 September by the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee, lawmakers pressed him on his communications with the Dongyang University president, which some fear could amount to witness tampering. “I spoke briefly with him after my wife,” Cho said, referring to a phone call with Choi last week.

Cho defended his wife and said: “A probe is ongoing [at Dongyang University]. The investigative body will make a conclusion.

“If she is prosecuted, she will stand trial and face a punishment if responsible.”

Universities’ internal investigations

Dongyang University on 4 September announced its own internal investigation led by a five-member team of professors to look into the award and Chung’s role in it. It said it will conduct interviews but said many of the relevant documents had been seized by prosecutors and some of the people involved were no longer at the university.

An internal investigation is already underway at Dankook University where Cho’s daughter completed a two-week internship at the College of Medicine while she was still a high school student, before publishing the now-rescinded paper as primary author.

Another internal investigation was carried out by Korea Institute of Science and Technology with a focus on the researcher who issued the internship certificate for Cho’s daughter. Normally such certificates are issued by the institution itself.

Protests by students and professors

Just before Cho was confirmed as justice minister by President Moon, professors from several universities held a press conference in Seoul on 5 September to protest Cho’s nomination. A joint statement was issued by 200 active and retired professors from 85 universities urging Cho to step down.

Students at Seoul National University (SNU) where Cho is a law professor have also held several protest vigils and called for Cho to resign from SNU on ethical grounds.

Doh Jung-geun, president of the student council at SNU, told local media that Cho had enough chances to explain himself – including an 11-hour press conference at the National Assembly last week and the National Assembly hearing into his nomination on 6 September – and said that “the facts revealed are enough to anger the students, so we believe calling for his resignation from SNU was appropriate”.