President Park Geun-hye’s nomination on Monday of former journalist Moon Chang-keuk as her new prime minister reminds us of the constraints she faces in making key appointments.
Park’s selection of Moon came as a surprise, given that the former chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo has never been mentioned as a possible candidate for the executive branch’s No. 2 post.
Moon, 66, spent most of his career as a conservative political journalist. Since his retirement, he has taught journalism at Korea University and Seoul National University. He has no experience at all in public administration.
Moon’s nomination should be seen in context. It came about two weeks after former Supreme Court justice Ahn Dae-hee, who was widely regarded as the right person to reform the civil service, resigned as the prime minister nominee amid controversy over the allegations he had benefited from corrupt practices in the legal community.
The episode must have significantly narrowed the already limited pool of potential candidates. Many qualified figures reportedly declined offers from Park for fear of being pilloried by the media and opposition parties before and during the parliamentary confirmation process.
As a result, Park’s main consideration in nominating a prime minister has probably been not the candidate’s leadership qualities or ability to push through reforms but rather his or her ability to run the gauntlet of the media and win the parliament’s approval.
As Moon has never worked as a bureaucrat, he is free from the criticism leveled at what is called the “bureaucratic mafia” ― former and incumbent government officials engaged in rent-seeking activities. Their abnormal practices are regarded as one of the causes of the Sewol ferry disaster.
The nominee’s regional background also boosts his chances of winning parliamentary confirmation. Moon hails from Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province. Any candidate from the Yeongnam region, the stronghold of the ruling Saenuri Party, would face difficulty obtaining endorsement from the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.
In fact, Moon’s regional background appears to have been one of the key factors behind his nomination. In the June 4 local elections, the ruling party lost all of the four metropolitan mayoral and gubernatorial seats in the Chungcheong region, the central part of the nation that has often swayed presidential elections.
Following the elections, there has been talk about the need for Park to nominate a candidate from this crucial region to win over its apparently disgruntled electorate.
In the wake of the Sewol ferry fiasco, Park has long searched for a person of high caliber who can not only spearhead reforms but promote national reconciliation by connecting with the public as well as the opposition camp.
She has reportedly been even willing to share her power with her new prime minister in her bid to change her governing style.
Whether her nominee can be such a prime minister remains to be seen. But in light of his limited scope of experience, he is probably not her best choice. As long as the current parliamentary confirmation system is in place, the president may have to settle for second, third or even fourth best.
Anyway, the nomination has been made. Now Moon should do his best to pass through the confirmation process. The NPAD’s initial response to him is negative. He needs to show that he is capable of dealing with state affairs and can read the minds of the public and connect with them.