By Joyce Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) – A growing corruption scandal over a new justice minister is bringing South Koreans from across the political spectrum out into the streets in numbers rarely seen since candlelight protests helped bring down former leader Park Geun-hye in 2017.
Tens of thousands of protesters staged demonstrations during recent holidays, including in downtown Seoul on Wednesday, and more gatherings are planned for Saturday.
Critics of liberal President Moon Jae-in routinely stage demonstrations in downtown Seoul but corruption allegations against justice minister Cho Kuk’s family have galvanised conservative groups after the political disaster of Park’s impeachment over a bribery scandal.
However, the latest corruption scandal has also led to major demonstrations from the other end of the political spectrum, many of whom participated in the 2016-2017 candlelight protests against Park. They see the investigation into Cho as politically motivated and are calling on the Moon administration to follow through with promised reforms.
The reforms include more oversight of prosecutors’ investigations, barring overly prolonged or late interrogations, and limiting investigations from spilling over into other probes, according to the Justice Ministry.
“I’d never been to a protest before last Thursday,” 34-year-old Lee Soo-min, a mother of one from eastern Seoul, told Reuters while attending an opposition rally on Wednesday.
“But I got so angry over what a hypocrite Cho is,” she said while holding a sign calling for Cho to resign. “Moon is not listening to anyone except his supporters.”
The scandal has broadened into a wider political clash, said Shin Jin-wook, a professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.
“The Minister Cho and prosecution reform issue became a catalyst for people to take collective action because it overlapped with older issues, such as differing views on national security, the economy, and politics,” Shin said.
“But because of the diverse views even within each camp, it’s still unclear what direction national opinion will take going forward,” he said.
Moon already faces public discontent over a sluggish economy and stalled diplomacy with North Korea and the Cho scandal has helped keep his approval numbers near historic lows.
His approval rating stood at 43%, according to a Gallup Korea survey conducted on Oct. 8 and 10.
Another survey conducted earlier this week by pollster Realmeter put Moon’s approval rating at 42.5 percent, the lowest the firm had registered since Moon became president.
Moon has continued to back Cho and told senior aides on Monday that although “public opinion can be divided on political issues, I do not think that means that national opinion is divided”.
Cho’s family is facing probes into irregular investments and his children’s’ favourable treatment in university admission.
Prosecutors summoned Cho’s wife for questioning for the fourth time on Saturday, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Cho has not denied the allegations against his family members but apologised for disappointing the people and said on Tuesday he was still committed to reforming the prosecutors office.
“I will carry out my duty until the last moment I am in this position,” he told a news briefing.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Paul Tait)