The Korea Herald

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Return of Lee’s top aide glimpse of next Cabinet reshuffle

By 김소현

Published : April 24, 2011 - 19:43

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The planned return of Yu Woo-ik, President Lee Myung-bak’s first chief of staff who has served as Korea’s top envoy to China for the past 16 months, is expected to coincide with a Cabinet reshuffle early next month, offering a glimpse of what Lee’s vision for the remainder of his term.

As one of Lee’s closest confidants, Yu is likely to get a new top post at home along with a handful of others within weeks of Wednesday’s parliamentary and local by-elections.

Yu, a former geography professor, stepped down as presidential chief of staff just four months into Lee’s presidency in June 2008, taking responsibility for prolonged anti-government protests triggered by a television documentary on U.S. beef imports.

Lee made him ambassador to China, Korea’s second-largest trading partner, in December 2009, and last week nominated a retired diplomat as his successor.

Former ambassador to Russia Lee Kyu-hyung will be the Lee administration’s third ambassador to China in just over three years, stoking criticism that the frequent replacement appears diplomatically unprofessional or inefficient when dealing with the world’s second-largest economy and North Korea’s closest ally.

Beijing’s stance of not openly accepting Seoul’s conclusion last year that the North attacked its naval ship, killing 46 seamen, shows that South Korea needs to work harder on its strategic partnership with China.

Yu reportedly said he was “not fit for overseas affairs” as soon as he was sent to Beijing. He even left China to attend a seminar in the U.S. immediately after the Cheonan was sunk.

Despite the diplomatic shortcomings, the former presidential chief-of-staff is rumored to take up a ministerial position upon his return home.

“President Lee has begun thinking about the Cabinet reshuffle,” a senior Cheong Wa Dae official said Friday.

Where Lee decides to place Yu will “indicate the direction of the president’s state affairs management towards the end of his term,” the official said.

Among the possible new posts for Yu are minister of unification, minister of land or chief of the National Intelligence Service.

With inter-Korean relations and national security still giving Lee a headache, the president may pick Yu as his top point man on North Korea.

If the former presidential chief of staff is named unification minister, it would send a message to Pyongyang and other neighboring countries that Lee is really open to inter-Korean dialogue or even summit talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Lee has repeatedly said that he is willing to meet with Kim Jong-il as long as Pyongyang shows a “change of attitude” on the deaths of South Koreans it recently caused or its nuclear disarmament.

Some predict that Yu could take over the nation’s top spy agency if the incumbent NIS chief Won Sei-hoon is moved to another top position in the government.

Others say the former geography professor may be appointed the new minister of land and maritime affairs considering his experience as secretary general of the International Geographical Union. Yu was in fact the man who drafted Lee’s campaign pledge to build a “grand canal,” which was later revised to dredging and developing the country’s four large rivers.

Some even speculate that last week’s nomination of envoys to replace the ambassadors to China, Japan and the U.N. was timed to release Yu ahead of the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle. Ambassador to Japan Kwon Chul-hyun reportedly offered to resign to prepare for his bid in the general elections next year.

Lee’s last reshuffle of top aides and Cabinet ministers took place shortly after last year’s local elections in June and parliamentary by-elections in July, respectively.

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldcorp.com)