It seems that President Park Geun-hye has set out on a sweeping shakeup of senior government posts, which she hopes will help the nation and her administration recover from the Sewol ferry tragedy and restore public confidence in government. She first picked a revered former prosecutor as new prime minister and fired two unpopular aides.
Although the opposition camp raised its customary skepticism and questions, Park’s nomination of former Supreme Court justice Ahn Dae-hee as prime minister is largely well accepted even by the usually picky Korean political community and society.
Ahn’s nomination had been expected as he was one of the favorites after Chung Hong-won tendered his resignation to take responsibility for the government’s bungled response to the Sewol disaster.
But the apparent sacking of the two senior officials ― the heads of the National Intelligence Service and the presidential national security office ― caught many by surprise.
That the two hawks had been major targets of the opposition leads one to believe that the president is desperate to restore popular sentiment toward her government and the ruling party ahead of the June 4 local elections.
The opposition had persistently demanded that Park replace NIS director Nam Jae-joon over a series of political scandals, including the spy agency’s alleged meddling in the 2012 presidential election and alleged document forgery regarding a probe into an espionage case.
The security chief, Kim Jang-soo, a retired four-star Army general like Nam, faced public rebuke when he said his office was not responsible for disasters like the Sewol sinking.
By announcing the sacking of the two top aides along with Ahn’s nomination, Park sought to maximize the effect of the appointment to help her recoup approval ratings that went down in the wake of the ferry disaster.
Park’s choice of Ahn is likely to boost her drive to regain public confidence in government, reform the officialdom and fight corruption.
A former prosecutor, Ahn was in charge of high-profile corruption cases, including those involving presidential candidates, Korea’s chaebol tycoons and even former President Roh Moo-hyun. Those cases lifted his image as a man of principle and integrity.
Ahn joined Park’s ruling party ahead of the 2012 presidential election as head of a political reform committee, but parted ways in discord over her recruitment of a politician with a record of corruption.
Along with the past ties with Park, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy has taken issue with Ahn’s background in the prosecution, accusing the president of sticking to her preference for prosecutors and judges.
In order to overcome these weaknesses and become a successful prime minister, Ahn must maintain the same resoluteness he manifested when he stood against Park in 2012. It is hoped that he can break the long-standing tradition that a strong, powerful prime minister was a rarity.
Ahn said after the nomination that he would tell the president what he had to, even if it was not what she wanted to hear. That is one of the many things he will have to do to become a responsible prime minister.