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[Newsmaker] Progressive professor tapped as corruption buster

Cho Kuk, Moon’s new legal affairs chief, vows to fight corruption

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Published : 2017-05-11 15:28
Updated : 2017-05-11 17:14

A scholar who is neither a former prosecutor nor a veteran politician may be an odd choice as Cheong Wa Dae’s legal affairs chief, but for President Moon Jae-in, who is determined to mark a fresh start, Cho Kuk is the right man.

The 53-year-old professor at Seoul National University’s law school was named senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Thursday.

“Cho is a reformist who believes in the rule of law and is thus the right person to support the president’s determination to reform the prosecution and other power organizations,” said Presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok in a press briefing.

Cho Kuk, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, speaks to reporters at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)

The liberal law professor has long been known for his frequent public appearances and acute remarks against governmental wrongdoings.

Unlike the majority of SNU law professors, who prioritize the political neutrality of academia, Cho has never refrained from expressing himself over key social issues, especially in denouncing high-profile corruptions and power monopolies.

“The worst president in history has at last been dismissed,” Cho wrote via his Twitter account on March 10, the day the Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment resolution on former President Park Geun-hye.

The professor went even further, calling for a stern investigation of Park.

“Now that the constitutional measure has been taken, it is time to move on to the criminal measure.”

The post of senior civil affairs secretary had mostly been filled by former senior prosecutors under past administrations. Many came under fire for their backscratching ties with the prosecution or influence-peddling upon the judiciary. One example is Woo Byung-woo, a pivotal figure in Park’s state scandal who was dubbed “the emperor” for his grip on the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement authorities.

But Cho, reflecting his longtime resistance to such power collusion, made his stance very clear from his first day in the Blue House.

“The senior presidential secretary for civil affairs should not take command over the prosecution,” Cho said in a stern tone, cutting in on a reporter’s question.

Also, when asked about his plan in terms of the prosecutor-general and police chief, he once again asserted that “the issue is not his to discuss,” underlining his will not to exert influence upon the investigation organizations.

As reasons for not taking the bar exam and joining the judiciary or the prosecution, Cho cited the dictatorial government in the 1980s that failed to reflect the rule of law.

“Back then (in the 1980s), it was common for the police to arrest, threaten and torture students without reason or evidence,” Cho wrote in his book titled “Why do I study the law?”

Those were the times that the nation’s Constitution and Criminal Procedure Code were not properly functioning, according to the law scholar.

“I saw no point in studying law and consequently becoming a member of the judiciary here,” the new presidential aide said, explaining his choice to renounce the state-run bar exam and to carry on his legal studies abroad, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dubbed the “Gangnam leftist,” Cho is also known for his affluent background, residing in Seoul’s Gangnam-gu. His progressive stance is seen as reflecting the 20-40 age group who, regardless of their economic status, tend to stand against conservative and vested powers.

Having officially engaged with Moon and the main liberal camp in 2015 as a member of the reform committee, Cho has also been referred to as “Little Moon” for his favorable remarks on Moon and his political visions.

By Bae Hyun-jung (tellme@heraldcorp.com)