Justice minister resigns as admissions scandal widens

South Korea’s embattled justice minister, Cho Kuk, has resigned just 35 days after he was appointed to the ministerial post amid an outcry over alleged admissions favours for his daughter and the alleged involvement of his family in other dubious deals.

His resignation comes just days before his wife, Chung Kyung-sim, a university professor, goes on trial this week on charges of allegedly forging documents to influence their daughter’s admission to medical school.

Chung was indicted on 6 September on charges of fabricating certificates relating to an internship which may have assisted in her daughter’s admission to medical school in 2014. Prosecutors said the indictment schedule was based on the looming statute of limitations expiration date.

The Cho Kuk saga, which is also related to wider allegations of corruption by members of his family, comes in the wake of campus protests and huge street protests by rival pro- and anti-Cho supporters. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans protested in Seoul, with some estimating there were crowds of up to three million on 3 October.

Many said it was the university admissions scandal around Cho’s daughter that particularly incensed them, saying Chung abused the family’s connections and high social status to gain admissions favours for their daughter.

Cho, in a statement on Monday, acknowledged his resignation was due to the intensifying investigation into allegations surrounding his family, particularly his wife and daughter. Now his son has also been questioned by prosecutors on 25 September about internships that may have been falsely documented and used for his applications to prestigious graduate schools in 2017. Cho’s son is currently a graduate student at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Prosecutors were looking at his internship experience at a Centre for Public Interests and Human Rights Laws at Seoul National University (SNU) School of Law, where Cho has been a law professor since 2009. On academic leave since his appointment as justice minister on 9 September, Cho has now returned to his academic post, despite calls by SNU students for him to resign his SNU professorship during his time as justice minister.

According to the university's regulations, there is no limit to the amount of leave a professor can take when appointed to a government position. They can return if they send a request within 30 days of their public service coming to an end.

Cho’s daughter interned at the SNU centre in 2009, while his son received a certificate saying he had interned at the SNU centre while he was a high school student in 2013.

“Allegations surrounding my family have come from nowhere. For whatever reason, I feel apologetic to the people regarding the ongoing probes into my family – particularly young adults,” Cho said as he resigned on 14 October, adding that he was standing aside to look after his family.

University raids

Cho himself has not so far been directly linked to any of the allegations regarding his daughter’s admissions. He has called the reports of his involvement in the internship documents as “truly malicious”.

He repeated his statement made during the National Assembly confirmation hearing in early September, saying his daughter had undertaken an internship at the SNU law centre and the document certifying it was validly awarded.

Cho has denied any lawbreaking by family members, but he acknowledged that his daughter had benefited from advantages denied to other students – a sensitive matter in a country where anger over economic inequality runs high. College students began holding rallies against him and calling him a hypocrite.

Chung said in a Facebook post that their son had been summoned and questioned for 16 hours by prosecutors on 25 September.

The premises of almost a dozen universities were raided in August and September in connection with the case. Cha University of medicine was raided in mid-September to retrieve university application documents linked with Cho’s daughter.

The latest to be raided included the admissions offices of Ewha Womans University, Chungbuk National University, Yonsei University and Ajou University “to verify” whether applications were received from Cho’s son and daughter with documentation regarding their internships at the SNU law centre.

Just two weeks after Cho was appointed justice minister with a brief to reform the prosecution service, prosecutors conducted an 11-hour raid on the Cho family home in Seoul in search of documents relating to these and other scandals. It is the first time prosecutors have raided the residence of a sitting justice minister.

Pre-trial hearing

According to the Seoul Central District Court, a pre-trial hearing for Cho’s wife Chung, a professor of English language and literature at Dongyang University in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang province, will be held on 18 October.

The upcoming trial concerns Chung’s alleged involvement in forging a certificate issued under the name of the president of the private university where she works. The certificate was submitted as part of her daughter’s application to Pusan National University Medical School, where their daughter, Cho Min, enrolled in 2015.

According to the criminal charges against her, Chung allegedly fabricated documents and obstructed business at Dongyang University by creating a Dongyang University presidential award for her daughter without the university president’s knowledge, and used his seal on the document without his approval.

Dongyang University President Choi Sung-hae has told media he was pressured by Chung to lie about approving the award, but he chose not to do so.

Cho Min also received an internship certificate despite not completing the time required for the internship. After a separate internship, she was also named lead author of a complex academic paper on pathology despite being just a high school student at the time. The paper was last month retracted by the journal.

Student councils at SNU and Korea University organised candlelit vigils on campus protesting Cho’s appointment. More than 4,000 former and current professors from 299 academic institutions signed a public statement as ‘Professors for Social Justice’ on 27 September, demanding a new justice minister “who can establish social justice and morality”.

Jeon Bong, a professor at the University of Ulsan, said some 10,000 professors supported the declaration, including overseas faculty, but not all of them wanted their names made public. He said more than 4,300 names had all been verified, and the signatures authenticated.