Prime Minister-designate Moon Chang-keuk withdrew his nomination on Tuesday amid mounting criticism over past controversial remarks, striking a heavy blow to President Park Geun-hye and her reform drive pursued in the aftermath of the Sewol disaster.
With Moon also withdrawing his nomination, President Park is likely to face another hard choice to ward off criticism of her repeated appointment failures and to find a new reliable figure tasked with restoring the battered image of the government after the ferry fiasco that left more than 300 dead or missing.
The former reporter was the president’s second pick for the new prime minister in two months. Former Supreme Court justice Ahn Dae-hee withdrew his nomination last month amid spiraling allegations that he received favors from his prosecutorial network.
Moon said in his 13-minute speech that he wanted to help the president because he had shared her vision and reform drive, but decided to withdraw his nomination because he did not want to be a burden to her. Moon was the first journalist picked for prime minister in the country’s modern history.
“I wanted to help President Park Geun-hye. But I thought it might be helpful for the president by withdrawing from the nomination at this point,” he said.
“Today, I voluntarily withdraw from the prime minister nomination,” he told reporters at a news conference held at the Central Government Complex.
Moon’s withdrawal came two weeks after he was nominated for the nation’s highest unelected official post. Moon, a retired journalist, has been under fire over controversial remarks he made on the 1910-45 Japanese rule of the Korean Peninsula and comfort women. In a speech delivered at a church in 2011, Moon said Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and the division of the country was God’s will. Some even called him “pro-Japanese” and an “apostate.”
Moon Chang-keuk announces his withdrawal from nomination for prime minister at a news conference at the government complex in Seoul on Tuesday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Despite mounting criticism from both the ruling and opposition parties, Moon took a firm stand and claimed that he was being wrongly accused.
In an attempt to recover his tarnished reputation before withdrawing the nomination on Tuesday, Moon defended himself by saying that his remarks have been “distorted” and “misinterpreted.”
He claimed that his basic rights, such as the freedom of religion and speech, were infringed upon and that he and his family could not just watch their honor being damaged through a political quarrel.
“Every person is guaranteed the freedom of religion … What is wrong with the remarks that I delivered according to my faith and as an ordinary individual?”
He compared himself with former liberal President Kim Dae-jung, questioning why he was not allowed to express his own faith while Kim was able to do so in his book. The former chief of the editorial desk at Joongang Ilbo also denounced politicians and the media for pressuring him to quit.
Shortly after the announcement, Cheong Wa Dae expressed regret over Moon’s withdrawal.
“The reason why we have confirmation hearings at the National Assembly is to verify (the nominees) and to represent the people’s decision. But I feel regretful (that Moon) couldn’t make it to the parliamentary confirmation hearing,” presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said, quoting Park.
“But from now on, I hope that (any) nominee can have the chance to give reasons for issues misunderstood so that their families don’t have to live in pain and dishonor for the rest of their lives,” the president said.
Park has been under mounting political pressure to abandon the former reporter. The president had said she would decide whether to submit the government’s motion to seek parliamentary approval for the prime ministerial nominee after her trip to Central Asia. She returned on Saturday but remained silent.
Reports quoting multiple sources say that Cheong Wa Dae may have attempted to convince Moon to voluntarily withdraw his nomination. If the president made any decision, either to keep him or abandon him, it would be seen as an admission that it was her fault to appoint Moon in the first place, they said.
Moon seems to have decided to quit after having gained a chance to clear his name.
The announcement came a day after the government said that Moon is believed to be a grandson of an independence fighter who fought against Japan’s rule of the Korean Peninsula in 1921. The Ministry of Patriots’ and Veterans’ Affairs said Monday that it is checking whether Moon’s grandfather is the same person recorded on the list of Korean patriots. Moon Nam-kyu from North Pyeongan Province, believed to be Moon’s grandfather, was posthumously conferred an award in 2010.
Later in the afternoon, President Park approved the government’s motion to request that parliament hold confirmation hearings for eight nominees including the chief of the National Intelligence Service and deputy prime ministers for economic and social affairs.
The ruling Saenuri Party expressed regret over Moon and said that his withdrawal shows that the conservative government may no longer be able to restore public trust.
Meanwhile, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy lashed out at Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon, saying he is at the center of the repeated nomination debacles.
“The people want (the president) to take proper action toward Kim by holding him responsible for personnel recommendations and the verification process,” said NPAD spokesman Park Kwang-on. “The president should offer an apology to the people (over the repeated nomination failures),” he added.
By Cho Chung-un (email@example.com