Should Korea Move Away From Confucian Public Reason?

“I should have scrutinized and managed my family much more rigorously not only as the head of the family but also as the father of my children.” – Cho Guk [1]

Above are the words given by Cho Guk, a former Justice Minister appointed by President Moon in South Korea, as a response to a nation-wide scandal disclosing his daughter’s illegitimate qualifications for university.[2] In South Korea, where one’s family is inseparable from one’s identity, the invitation of familial affairs into the public discourse is not uncommon. The intensity of “family management” serving as a source of debate in disqualifying political leaders has fully proven itself in 2009 when Former President Roh committed suicide after his wife and relatives were accused of receiving $6 million worth of bribes.[3]

In both cases, scandals involving their families, even when they are not allegations made directly to the leaders, have served as legitimate sources of qualification for political leaders. Rho and Cho both have made formal apologies within government for their inability to manage their families properly. In Cho Guk’s case, the scandal over his daughter and wife became unbearable to a point where he stepped down from his role as a Justice Minister in less than a week.[4] The question that this article wishes to answer is: why do Koreans take seriously family matters as a legitimate qualification for political leaders? I argue that Kim (2015)’s Public Reason Confucianism model, which makes Confucian values the core elements of public reason, explains why non-liberal values that enforce comprehensive principles are able to survive in Korean political debates. Further, I use the recent Cho Guk scandal in South Korea as a case study to show that the merging of comprehensive values and conceptions of justice, endorsed by Kim, can in fact help to hinder a society from reaching democratic goals. Thus, the case helps us to understand why the Rawls’ separation of comprehensive values and political justice is more democratic, even in a society which does not suffer from extreme kinds of value pluralism.

Cho Guk’s “Family Problem”

On August 23rd 2019, Cho was nominated by President Moon as the justice minister and promised the nation to bring significant judicial reforms. Immediately following the nomination, the main opposition, Liberty Korea Party (LBP), would raise two cases against Cho’s qualifications. First, the LBP questioned the ability of Cho’s daughter to win admission to prestigious universities as well her scholarships following university enrollment. They argue that not only is the daughter’s publication in a science journal impossible simply because of her status as a high school student at the time but also are her scholarships illegitimate due to her inadequate grades. Secondly, Cho’s wife would be accused of fabricating her daughter’s application documents as well as for her skeptical involvement in a private equity fund.[5] The seemingly absurd allegations against a political nominee would be carried further into the National Assembly, where Kim Jong Min, an opposition member would yell, “if it is true that your daughter’s admission was fabricated product of your wife’s sneaky efforts, then you are disqualified to become the Justice Minister!”.[6] The allegation would not stop there. In September, 3 million university students would take their anger on the streets, and Cho’s house would be raided by the police, signaling the allegations to become formal investigations taken seriously by the government.[7] A week after his formal appointment, Cho would step down as the Minister and would give a formal apology to the citizens by claiming that he “must stop burdening the President with his own familial affairs”. [8]

Rawls’ Public Reason

To many Koreans, the utilization of “family harmony” as a source of objection against opposition members is no big surprise. Even the liberal parties, who have made extensive efforts to protect Cho’s nomination, are not exempted from the practice. After Cho’s allegation by the LBP, supporters of Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea would in return question the admission qualifications of LBP members’ children.[9] To states that uphold liberal values like equality and justice as core elements of political debates, violent escalation of the scandal around Cho’s daughter may seem absurd.

Rawls’ concept of Public Reason offers a good starting point for understanding what can constitute a political debate. According to Rawls, the society will never be immune to the immense amount of different values that people hold. These values, called comprehensive values, are determined by peoples’ religious, philosophical, and moral backgrounds and often lead to arguments about fundamental truths of life that are not able to be reconciled.[10] Rawls claims the inescapable fact of value pluralism leads societies to exercise Public Reason, a practice that all citizens mutually partake in to produce political outcomes that are reasonable to all parties. According to Rawls, there are several conditions which Public Reason must fulfill. First, Public Reason must limit itself to political debates or what Rawls calls, the “public political forum” where it is immune to comprehensive doctrines. In other words, democratic states, as they must embrace value pluralism, must focus on debating on issues that are able to reach an agreement, such as discussions on constitutional rights and justice, rather than depleting its time on questions fundamental to life that cannot be resolved. Secondly, Public Reason must guarantee all citizens their equal rights and opportunities to participate. Lastly, all participants of Public Reason must show reciprocity and make propositions that are reasonable to all parties, which Rawls argues is best produced when citizens fully understand the second condition on equal standing of all citizens. It is only when these conditions are fulfilled that citizens of irreconcilable values can collaborate together to find an overlapping consensus on political decisions.[11]

Korea’s Democracy – Closer to Kim’s Confucian Public Reason?

It is not difficult to realize that the public debate on Cho’s qualifications as a Justice Minister is incongruent to Rawls’ Public Reason. In fact, there were plenty of chances which Cho’s nomination could have followed Rawls’ model. It has been easily forgotten that Cho’s nomination was a strategic move made by President Moon, who wished to drive momentum for judicial reforms before he leaves office. What made Cho distinctive from other contenders had nothing to do with his family but his career background as a law school professor, making him starkly different from past Ministers who were traditionally former members of Korea’s Prosecution Service entity.[12] But why did Koreans choose to limit their debates on Cho’s daughter and wife who have no relation to the judicial reforms that Moon was initiating?

For Kim, Cho’s case manifests exactly how Rawls’ theory on Public Reason can fail in democracies that have historically shared a set of comprehensive values, such as Confucian values in the Korean case. Kim argues that states practicing Public Reason gains its legitimacy from first, recognizing the coercive nature of the state and thus, acting as a neutral entity which only produces decisions that are justifiable to the public.[13] However, he contests to the neutral identity of Public Reason by questioning why citizens, even within the boundaries of “public political forums”, chose to have different conceptions of justice. Kim adds that the source of such disagreement can only originate from peoples’ comprehensive doctrines, which Rawls’ was trying to reconcile with Public Reason. However, Kim claims the weakness of Rawls’ argument should not lead us to abandon Public Reason entirely. Instead of pretending that the state can maintain its neutrality, Public Reason can be utilized to promote a particular conception of “a good life”. This particular conception would be consistent with the comprehensive values prevalent in the state, such as Confucian values. In other words, there would be no need for citizens to repress their comprehensive values in Public Reason; rather, they would promote justice in the state as long as it endorses the states’ selected values. In democracies like Korea where certain Confucian values, such as inseparable identities of family and individual, precede citizens’ conception of liberal values, Rawls’ model can be modified to “Public Reason Confucianism”.[14]

I argue that Cho’s scandal demonstrates how Public Reason Confucianism is already being practiced in today’s Korean politics. Rather than reading Cho’s model as a normative one which should be adopted in the future, we must recognize that his model is in fact simply an analysis of contemporary Korea. Cho’s scandal perfectly illustrates this phenomenon. It demonstrates how ones’ qualification as a political leader can be supported by sources that are irrelevant to constitutional provisions and the political environment but can stay extremely close to comprehensive values – whether they are Confucian or not – that the citizens prioritize.

Confucian Public Reason: A Correct Analysis but is it Democratic?

Through Kim’s Confucian Public Reason, the question this article poses – why do Koreans take seriously family matters as a legitimate qualification for political leaders – has been answered. Like Kim argues, certain values such as family values in Korea that are historically significant to a society can easily precede liberal values, endorsed by Western democracies, even if the state seems to espouse Rawls’ version of Public Reason. However, what would make this discussion even more meaningful is to question if we should acquiesce to Kim’s normative view on Korea’s continuous adoption of Confucian Public Reason.

I argue that while Confucian Public Reason, or rather the merging of any comprehensive values with public reason, is less democratic because comprehensive values can be conveniently used to hinder the society from making decisions that are consistent with justice.

For example, Cho was nominated by President Moon to take charge of one of the most significant reforms of the Korean judicial system. Currently, the Korean Prosecution Service holds not only both the power to investigate and prosecute but also the right to permit the Police to investigate members of the Prosecution Service. In other words, the Prosecution Service had the power to investigate criminal cases of its own, which had been exploited to hinder investigations into corruption cases related to the members of the Service. Cho’s nomination entailed a massive transformation of the judicial system by eliminating the role of the Prosecution Service to permit investigations and by creating an independent Bureau that would handle corruption cases related to the Service.[15] This accentuates the absurdity of the reason behind why Cho had been disqualified – for his inability to manage his family matters properly.

However, Cho’s scandal also tells us Koreans also are conscious of how Confucian Public Reason can make the Korean society less democratic by equating comprehensive values with justice. Following the police raid to Cho’s house, which even involved investigations into his daughter’s middle school diary, millions of citizens took to the streets for 8-weeks to demand the government to shift its attention from the Cho family scandal to the judicial reforms itself.[16]

Cho’s scandal illustrates perfectly of how Confucian Public Reason can naturally arise in a certain state but also how the intervention of comprehensive values into the political sphere can make its society less democratic. While Kim’s Confucian Public Reason offers a more suitable framework to understand Korean politics than Rawls, we should reject Kim’s normative stance. The promotion of a “good life” can easily exist alongside a halt in political justice where corruption within the government can be conveniently hidden. The 8 week of protest in Seoul endorsing Cho’s support for reform suggest that Koreans have understood clearly of the flaws of Confucian Public Reason. However, the adoption of Rawls’ model of Public Reason as an alternative must also be questioned in the future.

[1] “조국, 더 많이 회초리 들어달라. 말로 변명 않겠다”,  Hyunjoo Lee, Hankook Ilbo, August 22, 2019. Retrieved November 22, 2019:

[2] “Moon appointee’s ‘privileged’ daughter angers young South Koreans”, Joyce Lee, Reuters, September 6, 2019. Retrieved November 22, 2019:

[3]“Despair Overwhelmed Former South Korean Leader Embroiled in Scandal”, Choe Sang Hun, The New York Times, May 23 2009, Retrieved November 22, 2019:

[4] “South Korean justice minister Cho Kuk resigns amid protests; President  Moon Jae In apologies”, Chang May Choon, The Straits Times, October 14, 2019, Retrieved November 22, 2019:

[5] “Moon appointee’s ‘privileged’ daughter angers young South Koreans”, Joyce Lee, Reuters, September 6, 2019. Retrieved November 22, 2019:


[7] “S. Koreans hold massive rally against. Justice minister”, Yonhap News Agency, October 3, 2019, Retrieved November 22, 2019:

[8] “조국, 전격 사퇴 이유…‘정권 부담·가족 고통·檢개혁 완성’”, DongA, October 14, 2019, Retrieved November 22, 2019:

[9] “South. Korea education row embroils opposition leader with son at Yale”, The Straits Times, September 18th, 2019. Retrieved November 22, 2019:

[10] Rawls, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, 766.

[11] Rawls, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, 766-777.

[12] “South Korean justice minister Cho Kuk quits aafter corruption scandal provoked mass protests”, South China Morning Post, October 14, 2019. Retrieved November 22, 2019:

[13] Kim, Public Reason Confucianism: A Construction, 188.

[14] Kim, Public Reason Confucianism: A Construction, 190-191.

[15] “Cho Kuk lays out prosecution reform plan”, The Korea Herald, Octobeer 9, 2019, Retrieved November 22, 2019:

[16] “South Korean Politician Resigns After Weeks of Protests”, Choe Sang Hun, The New York Times, October 14, 2019. Retrieved November 22, 2019:


Kim, S. (2015) Public Reason Confucianism: Construction. American Political Science Review.

Rawls, J. (1997) The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, University of Chicago Law Review 64 (3).

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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