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[Newsmaker] Controversy brews over Cho Kuk’s ties to socialist group

Cho Kuk, former senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, sought to fend off criticism over his involvement in the South Korean Socialist Workers’ Alliance in 1991, saying it had been a way to “stand against a dictatorial government and pursue economic democracy.”

“Cho Kuk in his 20-somethings was inexperienced and fell short, but sought to walk along with public agony with a passionate heart,” Cho said Wednesday morning at a temporary office in Jongno, central Seoul.

“Activities to stand against the dictatorial government and pursue economic democracy in 1991 have been brought back in 2019. For the past 28 years I have not tried to hide the record. I am neither proud nor ashamed (of it),” Cho added.

He vowed to address his detractors’ concerns and be open about his past during his upcoming parliamentary confirmation hearing.

Baek Tae-woong, a sitting professor at the University of Hawaii, and poet Park No-hae were among the core members who launched the federation in November 1989.

Its top objectives were to bring down the Roh Tae-woo government, transform society so as to incorporate more left-leaning policies, and establish a progressive party for laborers. 

Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk enters an office in the Jongno district on Wednesday (Yonhap)
Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk enters an office in the Jongno district on Wednesday (Yonhap)

Key members of the federation were arrested by the predecessor of the National Intelligence Service in March 1991 and tried on allegations of violating the national security law.

In June 1993 Cho, who was then teaching law at the University of Ulsan, was indicted for his involvement in a group affiliated with the alliance.

The Supreme Court eventually upheld an appellate court ruling sentencing Cho to a year in prison and two years’ probation.

Cho’s ties to the federation were brought into the spotlight by main opposition Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn, who in his earlier role as a prosecutor specialized in anti-communist efforts.

“No matter how much the world has changed, it does not make sense for someone who was part of an organization that sought to overthrow the country to become the justice minister,” Hwang said earlier in the week.

Echoing Hwang’s comment, Rep. Kim Do-eup -- the party’s assistant administrator on the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee -- questioned the appropriateness of Cho taking office considering his involvement in the alliance.

Liberty Korea Party Floor Leader Na Kyung-won convened an urgent meeting during her vacation to craft the party’s strategy for upcoming hearings, mainly targeting Cho.

Meanwhile, 49.1 percent of the 500 adults surveyed by local pollster Real Meter said they agreed with President Moon Jae-in’s decision to nominate Cho as justice minister, while 43.7 percent said they disapproved. 

By Kim Bo-gyung (