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100 days in office, Moon yet to finish appointments

Highly controversial nominees have been dropped, some remain
Aug 17,2017
During his 100 days of presidency, President Moon Jae-in has worked tirelessly to normalize state affairs in the aftermath of his predecessor Park Geun-hye’s disgraceful exit. Various reform measures were introduced and the government was restructured. Moon traveled to the United States and Germany to meet with leaders of major countries. He participated in a series of public events to better communicate with the people. Today marks the 100th day since Moon took office, but his administration is still operating with key vacancies following a series of appointment flops.

Moon formally appointed Rep. Kim Young-joo of the ruling Democratic Party as his labor minister on Monday, almost completing the formation of his cabinet, but he still needs to recruit the head of a new ministry he created to promote operations of small and medium businesses.

The National Assembly approved the government restructuring bill, which includes the creation of the new ministry, on July 20, but it appeared Moon needs more time to make his decision. “No appointment announcement is scheduled today,” said a presidential official on Wednesday.

The Moon administration has 27 vice minister posts for the 18 ministries and other government offices, and one key post remains vacant following a recent appointment disaster. Moon named Park Ky-young, a biology professor, on Aug. 7 as the new chief of the Science, Technology and Innovation Office at the Ministry of Science and ICT. The decision, however, faced condemnation because of the scandal-ridden scientist’s ties to the rise and fall of the notorious cloning expert, Hwang Woo-suk. Scientists, civic groups and politicians protested the nomination. Park resigned from the vice ministerial position, which comes with the control over 20 trillion won ($17.5 billion) in research and development after only four days.

Starting with the very first nomination of Lee Nak-yon as the prime minister, Moon’s choices of top officials were resisted by opposition lawmakers. Lee was rejected by the conservative Liberty Korea Party and Bareun Party, but the National Assembly confirmed the appointment.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, Defense Minister Song Young-moo and Fair Trade Commission head Kim Sang-jo were largely rejected by the opposition Liberty Korea Party, People’s Party and Bareun Party, though Moon appointed them anyway. Ahn Kyong-whan, nominee to become the justice minister, and Cho Dae-yop, labor minister nominee, however, were forced to give up the posts over ethical lapses.

Amid the delay in government formation, Moon has yet to make ambassador appointments. Although tensions on the Korean Peninsula rapidly escalated due to the North’s nuclear and missile provocations, he still needs to appoint ambassadors to the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

Speculations are high that Moon will recruit Lee Tae-sik, who once served as ambassador to the United States during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, one more time, but the Blue House said no ambassador appointment is planned as of Wednesday.

Rep. Joo Ho-young, floor leader of the Bareun Party, said Friday that Moon also needs to modify his national security team. “There are many diplomats, but no military strategists,” he said, adding that the need to reshuffle the security team is higher than ever.

Moon mainly hired those promoting inter-Korean dialogue and less reliance on the United States. The head of the National Security Office, for example, is currently being headed by Chung Ui-yong, a multilateral diplomacy expert, a departure from the tradition that a military leader was long hired.

Rep. Na Kyung-won of the Liberty Korea Party said the Blue House’s security team is practically a reincarnation of the Roh team. “That’s perhaps why Moon is blinded by the illusion of the 2007 inter-Korean summit,” she said.

Outside the executive branch, Moon needs to name a successor for the Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae, whose term ends on Sept. 24. According to sources from the legal community, Moon wanted to recruit Chon Soo-an or Park Si-hwan, but both former Supreme Court judges refused the offer.

Taking into account the National Assembly confirmation hearing process, Moon needs to make an announcement this week in order to avoid a vacuum. “We don’t have a specific schedule for the nomination,” a presidential aide said.

The struggle for the Constitutional Court appointments is also continuing. Moon named Constitutional Court Justice Kim Yi-soo to head the court and the National Assembly already held a confirmation hearing. But a motion to confirm his appointment has not been discussed in the legislature for months due to the opposition lawmakers’ protest, and Kim remains a nominee.

On Aug. 8, Moon also nominated Lee You-jeong as a Constitutional Court justice, but she is expected to face harsh grilling at the upcoming confirmation hearing over her political neutrality. She has previously declared her support for Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.

Opposition parties, even the Justice Party, which has been cooperative, said the delay in formation of the government is because of Moon’s preference for recruiting candidates who are personally close to him, as opposed to his promise to make appointments based on candidates’ qualifications. They also said failed appointments, particularly the recent fiasco surrounding Park Ky-young, are an indication that the vetting system needs improvement.

They said appointments were doomed because of Moon’s preference to hire the officials who worked in the Roh administration. During Roh’s presidency from 2003 to 2008, Moon served key posts of the Blue House, including civil affairs senior secretary, in charge of the nomination and vetting process, and chief of staff. Roh was the political mentor and lifetime friend of Moon.

They said the vetting system in the Moon Blue House failed to work properly because the unsuccessful nominees were Moon’s close associates, people with ties to Roh. Ahn Kyong-whan, the failed justice minister nominee, was the head of the National Human Rights Commission during Roh’s presidency. Park was the science and technology advisor of the Roh Blue House.

“Those who worked in the Roh Blue House got a free pass,” said Rep. Joo Ho-young, floor leader of the Bareun Party.

“Of the 56 officials working in posts of presidential secretaries and higher in the Blue House, 82.1 percent are former student activists, former Roh aides, members of Moon’s presidential campaign or lawmakers of the Democratic Party,” said Lee Jong-chul, spokesman of the Bareun Party. “In the Moon government, personal relationships with the president are fully blooming.”

Critics also said the Blue House is intoxicated with Moon’s high approval ratings. According to the Gallup Korea poll conducted during the first week of June, his approval rating was 84 percent. Last week, his rating was 78 percent.

“The Blue House said it has introduced a strict vetting system, but someone like Park Ky-young still passed the screening and was appointed,” said Rep. Chu Hye-seon, spokeswoman of the Justice Party. “We wonder if the appointment was strongly pushed by the president.”

A former senior aide of the Park Geun-hye Blue House agreed. “When the president strongly wants an appointment, it is extremely difficult for the aides to challenge it,” he said.

Some appointments also seem bulletproof. Tak Hyun-min, a former adjunct professor at Sungkonghoe University and an event planner, is a key associate of Moon, and is working as a senior staffer in the protocol secretary’ office. Demands for his resignation are high over a series of controversial and sexist remarks in books he authored since 2007. Even Moon’s minister of gender equality and family, Chung Hyun-back, asked for his dismissal, but Tak is still serving the post and planning key public events for Moon.

BY SER MYO-JA, KO JUNG-AE [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]