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[Newsmaker] Yoon and Cho, the rise and fall of icons

Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk continue to dominate local headlines for starkly different reasons, with shifting support from liberals and conservatives. 

File photo of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl (left) and Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk. (Yonhap)
File photo of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl (left) and Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk. (Yonhap)

Yoon gained fame as a lead investigator in the allegations that the National Intelligence Service interfered in the 2012 presidential election. He was then pushed away from the center of power at the prosecution, only to return to the public eye in 2016 as one of the lead investigators in the massive power abuse and corruption scandal that led to the fall of former President Park Geun-hye.

Yoon has since come to be known as an icon of integrity. In 2013, he stated that he was loyal to his duties and not to people, meaning he is not swayed by political or personal ties.

According to a local daily, Yoon’s experience in investigating the hedge fund Lone Star is likely to have prompted him to launch an investigation into Cho.

Lone Star is a US-based hedge fund that had purchased controlling shares of the Korea Exchange Bank and later sold it to Hana Financial Group. Yoon was one of the main investigators in the probe into alleged irregularities in Lone Star’s sale of KEB.

According to the local daily JoongAng Ilbo, a prosecutor-turned-lawyer said that Yoon appears to have “intuitively sensed abnormal developments” in the Cho family’s investments. The unnamed lawyer also said that Yoon follows the principle of conducting investigations without “political considerations.”

While Yoon appears to be sticking to his guns in investigating Cho, the investigation has riled the ruling Democratic Party, which had at one time hailed him as the ideal leader to reform the prosecution.

The unprecedented investigation into allegations faced by a ministerial nominee began late last month. On Aug. 27, the prosecution raided a number of locations linked to allegations involving Cho and his family. The investigators have also banned a number of Cho’s family members, including Cho’s mother and wife, from leaving the country.

It has been alleged that the Cho family made dubious investments in a private equity fund and that Cho’s younger brother was involved in the fund’s operations. There are also allegations that the fund invested in a government-led project with insider information. 

Cho Kuk holds a press conference at the National Assembly on Monday. (Yonhap)
Cho Kuk holds a press conference at the National Assembly on Monday. (Yonhap)

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party has also alleged that Cho’s brother and his former wife are divorced only on paper to avoid paying debts accumulated by his company and that there are irregularities in the academic foundation operated by the Cho family.

Since the investigation began, ruling party bigwigs have accused the prosecution of returning to its old ways, and raised the possibility that the investigation is aimed at hampering the Moon Jae-in administration’s reform drive. 

Democratic Party Chairman Rep. Lee Hae-chan has said that some details of the investigation being leaked to the media were “disrupting the country.” Kang Ki-jung, a senior presidential secretary for political affairs, has also called on Yoon to investigate related allegations.

Cho himself has been something of a progressive icon, having gained public attention with his criticism against unfair customs of society and the establishment.

As the senior civil affairs secretary to the president, Cho continued to speak his mind via social media, most notably on Seoul-Tokyo issues.

However, the allegations surrounding his daughter appear to have hit a nerve with university students, who tend to show more progressive political tendencies than older generations.

It has been alleged that Cho’s daughter received unfair advantages in college admissions and in receiving scholarships.

The allegations have prompted a number of candlelight protests, and student bodies have called for Cho’s nomination to be withdrawn.

Cho, however, has reiterated that he has no intention of stepping down from nomination on a number of occasions, while ruling and main opposition parties wrangle over his parliamentary confirmation hearing.

By Choi He-suk (