Another favouritism scandal rocks South Korea in setback for President Moon

South Korean President Moon Jae-in staged a political comeback due to his successful efforts to contain a coronavirus outbreak. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - A year ago, Mr Moon Jae-in's presidency was shaken by allegations that a high-flying justice minister had abused his influence to benefit his children. Now, Mr Moon's in a similar jam, with a different justice minister.

Prosecutors raided the Ministry of National Defence and Army Headquarters on Tuesday (Sept 15) as part of a probe into whether Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae inappropriately helped her son extend his medical leave from military service.

The scandal has quickly consumed local politics, with opposition lawmakers grilling Ms Choo in Parliament and a ruling-party legislator identifying a whistle-blower who helped spark the case.

The case has drawn parallels to a controversy last year that forced Mr Moon's previous justice minister Cho Kuk to resign - driving the government's approval rating to an all-time low.

Mr Moon staged a political comeback due to his successful efforts to contain a coronavirus outbreak, and in April secured an unprecedented supermajority in Parliament for his progressive Democratic Party.

The scandals have helped renew anger over inequality that fuelled the downfall of former President Park Geun-hye in 2016 and propelled Mr Moon to power on a promise to build a "world without privilege."

The conservative opposition, which this month adopted the more populist-sounding name People's Power, is attempting to harness that dissatisfaction to carry it back to the presidency when Mr Moon's single, five-year term expires in 2022.

The battle played out in the National Assembly on Monday as opposition lawmakers pressed Ms Choo for details about whether she or her husband in 2017 used her status as Democratic Party chairwoman to get their son's medical leave extended.

"It's a unilateral, one-sided claim and a complete misunderstanding," Ms Choo told lawmakers Monday, rejecting allegations of any wrongdoing.

While she denied personally contacting the military on her son's behalf, she declined to say whether an aide had done so.

The next day, the DongA Ilbo newspaper reported, without saying where it got the information, that a former Ms Choo aide told prosecutors that he contacted the military about her son's case.

"Choo dodged the opposition's questions during the parliamentary session on Monday, failing to offset the allegations made against her," said Mr Kim Man-hum, president of the Korean Academy of Politics and Leadership.

"Her attitude frustrated the general public here and further fueled their anger over the issue of inequality. I don't think this will do any good for the Moon administration."

Ms Choo said in questioning by opposition lawmakers in Parliament Thursday that she was aware her aide had contacted the military through reports in the media but denied she had first-hand knowledge of it.

The minister added that neither her nor her husband had contacted the military.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers connected to the case have come under intense pressure. Democratic Party lawmaker Hwang Hee apologised and took down a social media post that identified one of them by name and described the person as a "criminal." A lawyer for Ms Choo's son has filed a lawsuit against another.

Mr Moon has has sought to avoid getting dragged into the fight, and his office on Wednesday directed questions to an earlier statement that it wouldn't comment on an ongoing inquiry.

Mr Choi Jae-sung, Mr Moon's senior secretary for political affairs, told local broadcaster JTBC on Tuesday that the president would "wait for the prosecutor's investigation."

Mr Moon's approval rating slipped 2.5 percentage points to 45.6 per cent, according to a tracking poll released Monday by Realmeter, with weaker support among housewives and people younger than 30.

A Realmeter poll last month showed the conservative bloc exceeding the ruling party's approval rating for the first time since 2017, in a nod of support for interim party leader Kim Chong-in.

The case has become entangled in a bitter partisan debate over Mr Moon's push to give the Justice Ministry more say over criminal prosecutions, a proposal both Cho and Ms Choo have championed.

Cho, a former top aide to Mr Moon, is currently on trial on charges including bribery and obstruction of justice - allegations he has denied and Mr Moon's office has criticised.

One of Ms Choo's first acts after her appointment in January was to reassign three senior prosecutors then working under Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. Ms Choo had pledged to carry out Mr Moon's reforms and re-balance the "almighty" prosecutors' power, while repeatedly sparring with Mr Yoon over questions of authority.

People's Power Party spokesman Yoon Hee-seok said the administration "destroyed and distorted our military command system" to protect Ms Choo's son. "People's level of trust in the government will to continue to fall if such acts continue," Mr Yoon said.

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