The Cabinet approved measures aimed at reforming the prosecution at a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon on Tuesday.
The move came a day after the measures were announced by Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who offered to resign shortly after the announcement, caving in to the mounting pressure to step down in order to distance himself from the widening probe into fraud and corruption allegations involving his family.
His wife, a professor, was being questioned by prosecutors at the very moment he disclosed plans that he said would transform the prosecution into a less authoritative and more people-centric institution.
His resignation comes about a month after President Moon Jae-in appointed him to the post despite widespread criticism. His insistence on keeping Cho in the Cabinet prompted massive public protests.
In a meeting with his aides after Cho’s intention to resign was made public, Moon offered a rare public apology for “having caused a lot of conflicts.” His apology came too late and fell short of acknowledging the inappropriateness of Cho’s appointment.
While appointing Cho early last month, the president said it would be a “bad precedent” not to make him justice minister solely based on allegations that have not been confirmed, referring to suspicions surrounding his family. It is now clear that Moon should rather have risked setting that bad precedent to avoid exacerbating political confrontation and social division.
Presidential aides say Cho voluntarily offered to resign. But he seemed pressured to give up his post as the surging negative voter sentiment made it hard for Moon and ruling party leaders to embrace the embattled minister.
A weekly poll released Monday put Moon’s approval rating at 41.4 percent, the lowest since he took office in May 2017. In the survey of 2,502 adult Koreans conducted last week, 56.1 percent disapproved of Moon’s performance.
The ruling Democratic Party’s approval rating stood at 35.3 percent, the lowest in seven months, while that of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party reached 34.4 percent, the highest in five months. The gap between the approval ratings of the rival parties was the narrowest since the Moon government assumed office.
A further fall in voter support could make Moon a lame-duck leader half way into his five-year presidency and the ruling party could suffer an embarrassing defeat in next April’s parliamentary elections.
While hoping Cho’s departure will assuage the public, Moon and ruling party officials are now seeking to shift the focus to reforming the prosecution.
The president said Monday the controversy surrounding the disgraced justice minister had served to raise public awareness of the urgent need to overhaul the powerful institution. He vowed to push through the prosecution reform despite Cho’s resignation.
Cho himself linked his departure to the successful implementation of the task. “I was mere kindling for reforming the prosecution. My role as such has come to an end,” he said in the statement announcing his resignation.
Part of measures he initiated can be deemed necessary for protecting people from excessive investigative power in the prosecution. Few would object to proposals to do away with practices such as unrestrained public summoning and late-night questioning, which have been criticized for infringing on the rights of suspects who have not been found guilty. But some measures to weaken the prosecutor general’s oversight on special investigative units may be seen as intended to loosen the ongoing investigation into suspicions involving his wife, brother and other family members.
The incumbent prosecutorial chief is said to be encouraging a special investigative unit at the Seoul Prosecutors’ Office to dig into them thoroughly without being affected by pressure from politicians and other figures close to Moon and Cho.
The Cabinet’s approval of prosecutorial reform measures just a day after their disclosure violates rules stipulating that proposed legal revisions should be put on public notice for more than 40 days except in cases of emergency. Few could agree that prosecutorial reform measures, though important, are so urgent as to require the period of public notice to be skipped.
The government should now ensure that the emphasis on reforming the prosecution and Cho’s departure will not slow or hamper the investigation into suspicions surrounding his family. Cho himself may have to go through a thorough interrogation over his possible involvement, though he denies any wrongdoing.
It would be in the nation’s interest if the Moon administration and the ruling party learned lessons from the Cho case and changed a wide range of ill-conceived policies beyond the prosecutorial issue.