Conservative civic groups critical of the Moon Jae-in administration took to the streets in central Seoul on Wednesday demanding the resignation of the president and arrest of scandal-stricken Justice Minister Cho Kuk.
Organized by conservative organizations -- particularly Protestant and veterans groups -- hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in their 50s to 70s, flocked to the 10-lane boulevards between the gates of Gwanghwamun and Sungnyemun in the afternoon.
The participants denounced the Moon administration as a pro-North Korea sympathizer ruining the country and condemned the justice minister, whose family is embroiled in corruption allegations, chanting “Moon Jae-in, step down” and “Arrest Cho Kuk” while waving South Korea’s national flag.
Jeon Gwang-hoon, chairman of the Christian Council of Korea who heads the alliance of conservative civic groups against Cho, claimed that some 5 million people attended the rally.
Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn and Floor Leader Na Kyung-won also took part in the civic groups-led rally.
Students from Seoul National University held a performance of distributing fabricated internship certificates to passersby near the Cheonggye Stream in an apparent attempt to lampoon the alleged forgery of university application materials.
In an apparent countermove, a rally in support of Cho, albeit much smaller in scale, was also held in Yeouido, southwestern Seoul on Wednesday. Some 2,000 people showed up to express support for Cho and his push to reform the prosecution.
The rallies were held on Hangeul Day, a national holiday to mark the invention of the Korean writing system in 1446.
The rallies came as a Seoul court earlier in the day refused to issue an arrest warrant for Cho’s younger brother, who is suspected of having taken bribes in return for hiring teachers and incurring financial losses to a private school foundation by filing a fraudulent lawsuit. The court cited the younger Cho’s health and his admission of guilt in regard to some charges.
Anti-Cho protesters denounced the court’s decision.
Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-shim, was also questioned for the third time by prosecutors on Tuesday as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations that she made a shady investment and forged university application materials for her daughter.
Massive rallies in favor of and against Cho are planned again for Saturday, with a pro-Cho rally to be held near the Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office in southern Seoul and the anti-Cho rally in central Seoul.
A coalition of university students opposing Cho, whose daughter is suspected of having been accepted into prestigious universities on the back of forged credentials, is also set to hold a second candlelight vigil in Daehangno in northern Seoul, following their first rally on Oct. 3.
The Cho scandal has divided the country since before his appointment last month, leading those in favor of and against the Moon Jae-in administration to pour onto the streets.
Moon appointed Cho, the former presidential secretary for civil affairs and a key architect of the Moon administration’s road map for prosecution reform, despite fierce resistance from the opposition bloc.
Pro-Cho rallies have been held in southern Seoul on Saturdays for the past three weeks, with participants denouncing the prosecution as politically motivated and calling for the overhaul of the law enforcement agency.
Led by the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and minor right-wing Our Republican Party, anti-Cho protesters also dominated central Seoul on Oct. 3, the National Foundation Day holiday. They demanded President Moon and Cho step down. The rally organizers claimed some 3 million people had gathered.
The parties will lead the anti-Cho rally at Gwanghwamun Square on Saturday.
The opposition rallies no longer appear to be about the scandal-ridden justice minister, with the composition of the participants at the respective rallies laying bare the deep rift along generational and ideological lines.
The pro-Cho rallies drew younger participants in their 20s to 50s. Many of them had previously taken to the streets in protest against now-jailed President Park Geun-hye in 2016 and had formed the main support base of the liberal bloc -- President Moon and the late President Roh Moo-hyun.
The anti-Cho rallies, on the other hand, saw older generations in their 50s to 70s, most of whom hold conservative political views and criticize Moon as a pro-North Korea sympathizer. At the protest they also demanded the release of former President Park.
With police withholding estimates of the numbers of rally participants, both sides appear to be inflating the respective numbers in apparent attempts to demonstrate they each represent the prevailing view.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com