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South Korean government tainted with corruption allegations

Julian Ryall
December 10, 2020

President Moon's public support has plunged to an all-time low following a dispute between his justice minister and the head of the prosecution.  Moon had secured the presidency by pledging to stamp out corruption. 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in
Moon Jae-in secured his position at the presidential Blue House in 2017 by vowing to eradicate state corruption. Image: South Korea Presidential Blue House via AP

In the run-up to the May 2017 general election, Moon Jae-in vowed that if elected he would put an  end to the corruption  that was tarnishing South Korean politics, and which had brought a premature end to the rule of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

Ahead of the 2017 vote, South Koreans became increasingly outraged at the reports of pay-offs and nepotism emerging from Park's presidential office. 

But as Moon enters the last 18 months of his own term as president, similar allegations are surfacing against his administration.

A recent public opinion poll showed that Moon's approval rating has sunk to an all-time low of 37.4%, plummeting from 80% in the early months of his government. Similarly, the approval rate of his Democratic Party has slumped to 28.9% — the lowest since it formed a government in 2017.

"It is clear that public sentiment is turning against the government and that, I would say, is the result of the conflict that has emerged between Moon's justice minister and the head of the prosecution service," Rah Jong-yil, a former diplomat and senior official in the South Korean intelligence service, told DW.

"There are lots of questions about irregularities that need to be answered by the government because at the moment it looks like they are trying to cover something up," he said.

Independent prosecution under threat

Moon personally appointed Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl in June 2019, assigning him the task of stamping out corruption in government-run agencies and ministries.

Yoon had led the investigation against Cho Kuk, who was appointed justice minister by Moon in September 2019.

Cho Kuk lasted just five weeks in his position before being forced to resign following allegations of illicit business deals. His wife was also accused of forgery in the falsification of academic achievements to help their daughter get into a top-ranked university.

The scandal ruffled feathers within the Liberal Party, but Yoon nevertheless continued his campaign. He was said to be close to uncovering more corruption cases possibly linked to the leadership of the party and the presidential Blue House until he was suspended by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, who demanded that Yoon face disciplinary action.

Within days, however, the ministry's inspection committee found all six claims to be groundless and reinstated Yoon. Choo continues to call for Yoon to be sanctioned.

Korean media has been critical of the campaign against Yoon, as the head of the country's prosecution service should be independent of politics.

The Korea Herald declared the attacks on Yoon "illegitimate" which threaten to "destroy the rule of law." The JoongAng Daily, meanwhile, condemned the justice minister for her "crusade" against Yoon.

A poll indicated that 44% of the public believes that the minister should resign and that Moon "needs to apologize to the people."

String of scandals emerge

It is not the first time Moon and his government have come under fire. In January 2019, the public relations manager for Moon's presidential campaign was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for using an influential blogger to manipulate public opinion in favor of Moon via social media.

During this time, a member of Moon's party was also caught up in a property scandal and was accused of purchasing houses under her relatives' names. Other members of the party have also been accused of concealing ownership of multiple properties, despite instructions to sell them due to a severe shortage of homes in Seoul.

In 2019, Ahn Hee-jung, former governor of South Chungcheong Province and a potential 2022 candidate, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for sexual assault. The Seoul High Courth convicted Ahn of raping his secretary, at least nine times between July 2017 and February 2018, while he was governor.

Chronic corruption

On Wednesday, the Anti-corruption and Civil Rights Commission released its annual integrity index, rating the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport as the most corrupt ministry with a score of five on a five-point scale (one indicates the lowest levels of corruption).

The Korean National Police Agency, the National Tax Service and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety scored only marginally better, each receiving a score of four.

Song Young-chae, a professor at Seoul's Samgmyung University, said while he is disappointed that Moon's promises of eradicating corruption have come to nothing, he said he is not surprised. 

"It's partly the nature of Korean politics ," he said. "They talk about 'democracy' and 'freedom' and the rights of the people, but that's just words," he said. "They {Moon's government} are not interested in their actions and decisions being transparent. They are only interested in keeping power.

"This latest case involving the justice minister and attempting to cover up what the government has been doing is just the latest case," Song added. "The corruption goes all the way to the very top."

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