SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean prosecutors on Tuesday indicted a key ally of President Moon Jae-in on a dozen charges including bribery as they concluded a monthslong probe into a political scandal that rocked Seoul’s liberal government and sparked huge protests.
In a rare public response to an ongoing criminal case, Moon’s office released a statement accusing prosecutors of pushing an excessive probe into former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and questioned whether it was politically motivated.
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said Cho was charged for receiving 6 million won ($5,190) in bribes, in the form of scholarships his daughter received from a medical school in Busan from 2017 to 2018, when he served as Moon’s senior secretary of civil affairs.
A prosecution official said Cho faces 11 other charges, including working with his wife to manipulate official documents and create fake materials to help their daughter’s admission into the school. He is also charged with obstructing justice and attempting to tamper with evidence regarding his family’s dubious private equity investments, according to the official, who didn't want to be named, citing office rules.
Prosecutors arrested Cho’s university professor wife, Chung Kyung-shim, in October.
Cho served as Moon’s justice minister for a month before resigning in October as the scandal grew, but he has firmly denied any legal wrongdoing.
A Seoul court last week rejected prosecutors’ request to arrest Cho over separate allegations that he blocked a 2017 government inspection into corruption allegations surrounding the pro-government vice mayor of Busan, who was arrested in November over suspicions of receiving bribes from businesspeople. The court said Cho was unlikely to flee or destroy evidence.
Cho's resignation as justice minister came after huge crowds of his supporters and critics marched in South Korea's capital for weeks, showing how the monthslong saga deepened a political divide.
Moon's liberal Minjoo Party and his supporters have accused the prosecution of pushing an excessive investigation out of resistance to government reform plans for the justice system that had been laid out by Cho, which include curbing prosecutors’ investigative powers.
But the allegations surrounding Cho have clearly struck a nerve in a country that’s struggling to tackle widening inequality and brutally competitive school environments and damaged the reformist image of Moon, whose economic failures and faltering diplomacy with North Korea have also raised the alarm for the liberals ahead of April's parliamentary elections.