Justice Minister Cho Kuk said Thursday he spoke by telephone with a chief prosecutor in charge of raids on Cho's residence over allegations of corruption, sparking a row over the appropriateness of the conversation, during a parliamentary interpellation session.
The telephone conversation was with a prosecutor who was on the scene of the raids of Cho's residence on Monday. Prosecutors are investigating corruption allegations involving his family, including his wife's alleged forgery of a school award.
The justice minister oversees personnel and administrative affairs of the prosecution and commands state prosecutors' investigations.
Cho rebutted claims by opposition lawmakers that he sought to influence the probe, but his remarks immediately ignited political wrangling.
"I asked (him to help) my wife relax, as she has not been in good physical or mental shape. But I never interfered in the raid and did not order anything about the execution of the raid," Cho said.
Cho attended his first National Assembly plenary session as a Cabinet member since he was appointed as justice minister on Sept. 9 with the task of reforming the prosecution.
The interpellation session on political affairs became a venue for partisan tensions as opposition parties raised doubts about Cho's qualification for his position.
As for Cho's phone conversation, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party said they will seek a parliamentary impeachment of Cho for alleged abuse of power.
The parliamentary session was marred by lawmakers exchanging yells and jeers at their political rivals, a typical scene in Korean parliament.
"I will do my best to complete the heavy task of overhauling the justice ministry and reforming the prosecution, which is the people's aspiration," Cho told lawmakers at the session.
"I believe the National Assembly will make a wise judgment about legislation over the reform of powerful organizations," he said, asking for parliamentary cooperation.
But once he stepped to the podium at the chamber to make his remarks, LKP lawmakers yelled at and booed Cho, with some calling him a "lawbreaker."
They attached signs reading "Cho Kuk, Resign!" on their chamber seats. Some LKP legislators turned their chairs and refused to look at the minister or temporarily left the chamber.
Lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), meanwhile, clapped their hands to show their support for the minister. Their questions were focused on highlighting the need to keep the prosecution's colossal power in check.
The controversy over Cho's family has emerged as an explosive political issue that recently sent the approval rate for President Moon Jae-in to a record low.
His family faces corruption allegations, including that his daughter received preferential treatment to gain admission to elite colleges and that his wife forged a college presidential citation to help their daughter enter a medical school.
Cho denied the allegations in the face of a barrage of questions by LKP lawmakers as he did during a confirmation hearing held in early September.
When asked over whether he is willing to step down, Cho said, "I feel responsibility. I will keep criticisms in mind."
His wife, who was indicted for alleged forgery in early September, looks set to be summoned by the prosecution for the probe in the coming weeks.
The DP and supporters of the minister have denounced the investigation as a politically charged move intended to hamper the government's efforts to reform the prosecution. (Yonhap)