S. Korean justice minister caught in influence scandal

She allegedly helped son extend military medical leave; Moon dealt fresh blow following previous minister's case

Justice Minister Choo Mi-Ae
Justice Minister Choo Mi-AePHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL • 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, the South Korean President is in a similar jam, with a different justice minister.

Prosecutors raided the Ministry of National Defence and Army Headquarters on Tuesday 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.

The case has drawn parallels with 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. Cho, a former top aide to Mr Moon, is currently on trial on charges including bribery and obstruction of justice, after a scandal involving family investment and university admissions for his children.

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

The scandals have reignited anger over inequality, which fuelled the downfall of Mr Moon's predecessor Park Geun-hye in 2016 and propelled Mr Moon to power, with his 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 chairman to get their son's medical leave extended.

"It's a unilateral, one-sided claim and a complete misunderstanding," Ms Choo told lawmakers on 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.

UNTRUE

It's a unilateral, one-sided claim and a complete misunderstanding.

JUSTICE MINISTER CHOO MI-AE, rejecting accusations that she inappropriately helped her son extend his medical leave from military service.

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

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

She added that neither she nor her husband had contacted the military.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2020, with the headline 'S. Korean justice minister caught in influence scandal'. Print Edition | Subscribe