SEOUL (Reuters): A disgraced former South Korean politician, Cho Kuk, was sentenced to two years in prison on Friday for forging documents to facilitate his children’s school admissions in a scandal that has deepened political divides and frustrated many young voters.
A star law professor, Cho was a key aide to former President Moon Jae-in and briefly served as a justice minister before resigning and being indicted on a dozen charges, including bribery and document fraud in late 2019.
The Seoul Central District Court convicted Cho of falsifying documents to send his son and daughter to prestigious high schools and universities, and peddling influence to interfere with a corruption investigation involving a Moon confidant.
Cho’s downfall dealt a stinging blow to Moon amid voter disillusionment over intensifying inequality and hypocrisy of Moon’s government and his progressive Democratic Party, and growing calls for fairness and reform.
It eventually gave rise to incumbent President Yoon Suk-yeol, who then as prosecutor-general investigated Cho and other graft scandals.
Cho, who has denied any wrongdoing, said he would appeal.
“I humbly accept the verdict and I will fight for my innocence in the parts where I was found guilty in the appeals court in a more sincere and honest manner,” he told reporters after the ruling.
The court said Cho colluded with his wife, Chung Kyung-shim, also a university professor, in manipulating documents to get their son into a specialised high school and a law school, and daughter into a medical school.
Chung has already received a four-year sentence for the charges and irregularities over family investment, while her daughter’s medical school and university cancelled her admission.
The court also imposed fines of 6 million won ($4,900), which it said Cho had taken from his daughter’s medical school as bribes in the form of a scholarship.
“He had repeatedly committed crimes of corruption in college admissions for his children for several years using his position as a university professor, so the motive and nature of the crimes are bad, and it seriously undercut social trust in the fairness of the college entrance system,” the court said in the ruling.
Cho also faces “heavy liabilities” for abusing his authority as a senior presidential officer to block a normal inspection into suspected misconducts “at the request of the political circle”, the court said.
It did not immediately imprison Cho, citing the low chances of him destroying evidence or running away due to the completion of investigations and Chung serving her prison term.
Cho was once seen as a next presidential candidate and the scandal had polarised the country, with many young voters taking to the street calling for sacking him, while his supporters accused prosecutors of politically motivated investigations.
Dozens of protesters from both sides gathered outside the courthouse on Friday, some denouncing Cho and others defending him.
President Yoon’s office did not immediately provide comment, but his ruling People Power party urged Cho to apologise for his conviction and exacerbating political strife.