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[Newsmaker] Maritime minister escapes the chop

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Published : 2014-06-15 20:56
Updated : 2014-06-15 20:56

Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Lee Ju-young, whose ministry was directly responsible for handling the Sewol ferry disaster, has managed to hang onto his post.

The news came as a shock to many, as speculation was rife that he would be the first to be replaced in the government’s recent personnel shake-up aimed at repairing its image.

It was more surprising because the seven ministers that President Park Geun-hye said would be replaced included two ― the education minister and security minister ― who were implicated in the Sewol incident.

It is also unusual for the South Korean government to let a minister off the hook like this, as administrations are notorious for dismissing ministers before they have time to learn from their mistakes.

Multiple reasons seemed to have been behind the decision, with the main one being that he has proven his loyalty and commitment to the public.

The anger and distrust that the families of the victims of the disaster initially showed toward the minister gradually dissolved after they witnessed his sincerity toward them and his support in their days of despair. To this day, Lee remains at Paengmok Harbor on Jindo Island where some of the families are still awaiting the return of their loved ones’ bodies. 
Lee Ju-young, minister of oceans and fisheries. (Yonhap)

He continues to doggedly visit their makeshift homes at the port, sitting with them in their times of trouble, hoping to lend any kind of assistance, both moral and physical. While it seems natural that he should do this as a responsible high-ranking government official, this has not always been the case. Several incidents involving the education minister enraged the families in mourning.

When Lee first took over the ministry following the dismissal of his embattled predecessor Yoon Jin-sook, he probably had not imagined that he would become the subject of such rage and controversy.

The Sewol sank less than two months after he was named as minister, amid mostly good reports on his character and abilities. In fact, most officials had believed it would be smooth sailing for the well-rounded politician, who had a way with people and knew his way around the government thanks to a long political career that started in 2000 in the Grand National Party, the predecessor to Park’s ruling Saenuri Party.

He is now faced with a task unlike anything he has had to deal with before: tying up the loose ends of the Sewol crisis and communicating to the public that the government is indeed sincerely grieving the loss of their loved ones, and that it will do everything it can to help them.

There are also legal issues to cope with, since his ministry is facing an array of accusations over malpractice and corruption revealed during the Sewol investigation.

“Lee is the man we need right now, since he has been given a harsh reality check on the ministry’s shortcomings,” is how one ministry official put it.

By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com)

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