S. Korean court sentences ex-minister to 2 years in prison

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean court on Friday sentenced a former justice minister, Cho Kuk, to two years in prison, after he was found guilty of creating fake credentials to help his children get into prestigious schools, a scandal that rocked the country’s previous government and sparked huge protests.

Cho was also found guilty of abusing his powers while serving as a senior aide to former President Moon Jae-in, by blocking an investigation into a former Financial Services Commission official seen as close to Moon who was eventually arrested for taking bribes from businesspeople.

But the Seoul Central District Court decided not to place Cho under immediate arrest, saying he wasn’t a threat to flee and that his wife was already serving a prison term over the charges related to their children. Cho told reporters after the ruling that he plans to appeal, and if he does within seven days he will stay out of prison until at least the appellate ruling.

The ruling culminated the public demise of the former Seoul National University law professor and liberal icon, whose political rise during the Moon government had him considered as a future presidential contender.

“I will appeal the charges that I was found guilty of and put up a more sincere argument (in court),” Cho told reporters after the ruling. He left without taking any questions.

After initially serving as Moon’s senior secretary of civil affairs, Cho was appointed as justice minister in 2019 but was forced to resign months later after allegations emerged that he colluded with his wife to forge documents and certificates to help their daughter get into a medical school. The couple later faced similar accusations surrounding the education of their son.

Cho apologized for the perks his daughter has received as he stepped down as justice minister but has steadfastly denied legal wrongdoing.

The charges struck a nerve in a country grappling with widening rich-poor gaps and where teenagers toil in hyper-competitive school environments because graduating from elite universities is seen as crucial to career prospects.

Cho’s legal saga also tarnished the reformist image of Moon, who vowed to restore faith in fairness and justice after winning a presidential by-election in 2017 to replace his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and jailed for corruption.

Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-shim, had already been serving a four-year prison sentence before the Seoul court on Friday added another year to her term, after finding her guilty of additional charges related to her son and also for trying to conceal her dubious private equity investments after her husband joined Moon's government.

The court said it was clear Cho had an active role in colluding with his wife to fake the credentials of their daughter to help her get into the medical school of Seoul National University, the most coveted school in the nation.

Cho's daughter didn't make it there but later got into Pusan National University's medical school in 2015. The PNU nullified her enrollment last year, saying it was based on false records.

The court found Cho guilty of violating an anti-graft law governing public servants by receiving 6 million won ($4,800) in the form of her daughter’s scholarship from Roh Hwan-jung, former head of PNU’s medical school, from 2017 and 2018.

However, the court said it couldn’t apply more serious bribery charges against Cho over the payments, saying it was unclear whether Roh had specifically sought favors related to Cho’s job as Moon’s senior civil affairs secretary. The court sentenced Roh to a sixth-month prison term that was suspended for a year.

The court found Cho and another former Moon aide, Baek Won-woo, guilty of abusing authority by blocking a government inspection into former Financial Services Commission official Yoo Jae-soo, months before Yoo became vice mayor in Busan.

Yoo, seen as a close ally to Moon, was later arrested for receiving bribes from businesspeople in exchange for favors during his time at the financial regulator. Baek was sentenced to 10 months in prison on Friday.