By Kim So-hyun
President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday named his first chief-of-staff and architect of the controversial “Grand Canal” pledge Yu Woo-ik as the new unification minister, confirming what had been expected ever since Yu left his 16-month service as ambassador to China four months ago.
Lee also nominated Choe Kwang-shik, historian and chief of the Cultural Heritage Administration; Rim Che-min, minister of the Prime Minister’s Office; and Rep. Kim Kum-lae of the Grand National Party as minister designates of culture, welfare and gender equality, respectively.
Tuesday’s partial Cabinet reshuffle came as Lee decided to send incumbent ministers who hold parliamentary seats back to the National Assembly about seven months ahead of the general elections in April.
Outgoing ministers Chung Byoung-gug of culture and Chin Soo-hee of welfare are expected to run for another term as legislators next year.
Minister of Special Affairs Lee Jae-oh is scheduled to resign later this week to return to his job as lawmaker. The special affairs minister’s post will be kept empty for the time being.
Lee also named outgoing Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, who designed the Lee administration’s hardline North Korea policy, as special adviser to the president on unification policy.
Yim Jong-yong, first vice minister of finance, was nominated as the new minister of the Prime Minister’s Office to succeed Rim.
As a former geography professor, Yu had outlined Lee’s major campaign pledges on development including the Grand Canal project which was later scaled down, due to public criticism, to redevelopment of the nation’s four rivers.
Yu 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 nominated a retired diplomat as his successor in April this year.
Some observers construe that Lee’s nomination of one of his closest confidants as Seoul’s top point man on North Korea reflects the South’s intention to improve inter-Korean relations towards the end of his term.
In addition to mentioning that Yu had been elected as the first non-Western secretary general of the International Geographical Union, the presidential office said in a statement that he had made “interest and academic progress” in unification-related matters and international politics, referring to his theses on territorial use of a unified Korea and geopolitical aspects of the Northeast Asian region.
“Ex-ambassador to China Yu Woo-ik is expected to push ahead with more expansive unification policies while maintaining the consistency of policies led by Minister Hyun,” Kim Du-woo, senior presidential secretary for public relations, told reporters in a briefing.
Picking a new culture minister designate had been the hardest during the screening for the partial Cabinet shakeup, the seventh under President Lee. Actor and musical producer Song Seung-hwan turned down the job offer earlier.
Having majored in ancient Korean history, new culture minister designate Choe taught in Korea University, headed the National Museum of Korea and served as a standing director of the Goguryeo Research Foundation.
Rim, a bureaucrat of 30 years, accumulated expertise in trade, policies for small and medium-sized companies, research and development.
Kim Kum-lae has served as a women’s rights activist in a conservative nongovermental organization for 10 years before joining Lee’s election camp in 2007 to assist first lady Kim Yoon-ok, serving in the presidential transition committee in early 2008 and becoming a legislator.
Not much time will be given for opposition legislators to grill the new Cabinet minister nominees in the televised confirmation hearings this time, as parliamentary audits on government offices are slated to begin Sept. 19.
The National Assembly is required by law to complete confirmation hearings for the Cabinet minister nominees within 20 days of receiving requests for the hearings. The parliament is bound to adopt reports on the results of the hearings, report them at the plenary session and submit them to the president within three days of the hearings.
But even if Cheong Wa Dae sends a request for confirmation hearings to the National Assembly immediately, there will only be 10 business days left for the National Assembly to complete the confirmation procedures.