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[Newsmaker] P.M. vows key role in state reform

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Published : 2014-07-20 21:38
Updated : 2014-07-20 21:54

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won vowed to continue to play a pivotal role in Korea’s reform drive, despite widespread concerns that the designation of ruling party bigwigs as deputy premiers will reduce his clout.

Chung, who unexpectedly retained his post after two potential successors withdrew their nominations, told reporters Friday that he is planning to work in tandem with the newly appointed finance minister, Choi Kyung-hwan. Choi will double as the deputy prime minister for economy. 
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won (Yonhap)

“Some seem to believe that the powerful deputy prime ministers will order me around, but they are mistaken,” Chung said during a luncheon with reporters at his official residence in Sejong City. “They are not the type of people to engage in a turf war.”

The appointment of Choi, former floor leader for the ruling Saenuri Party and a member of President Park Geun-hye’s inner circle, brought about concerns that the leader will enforce her will on to the Cabinet members.

Earlier in the week, Hwang Woo-yea, former chairman of the Saenuri Party and Park’s confidant, was nominated as the new education minister and deputy prime minister of social affairs.

The deputy premiers are expected to call most of the shots in their respective fields, but Chung said he would not be a mere figurehead. “I hold the upper hand in one category for sure: I’m older than both of them,” Chung said jokingly. “In case of conflicts between ministries, I will step in as a mediator.”

With his deputies taking much of the workload, the prime minister said he would focus on reforming the government and eradicating corruption. He mentioned the Sewol ferry disaster in April that left over 300 dead or missing as a potential opportunity for the country to become a safety-first society.

One of the worst maritime disasters in Korea’s history, it exposed a slew of irregularities, namely the network of corruption between bureaucrats and the private sector, referred to as “gwanpia.”

Investigators found that Sewol’s operator ignored safety protocols to increase profits.

“When I first heard about the accident, I did not believe it to be true. Then I thought to myself, ‘How could such a thing happen?’” Chung said, with tears welling up in his eyes.

“There is something I’ve learned in the aftermath of the Sewol accident, which is that all public officials must put safety before all else. There should be a widespread consensus that if companies do not take measures for safety, they will meet their demise,” he said.

Ironically, if Chung had his way, he would not be holding his post as the nation’s second-in-command. Ten days after the tragic ferry accident, Chung submitted his resignation, holding himself responsible for the government’s lackluster response that led to its failures in the initial rescue.

The subsequent nomination debacle, however, proved to be unsuccessful as two nominees for the role resigned amid increasing pressure from the opposition over allegations of misdeeds. Last month, President Park said she would retain her deputy “after much consideration.”

“I told (Park) that she should put more effort into personnel selections by pooling a lot of reference materials (on the potential candidates), so she can appoint right people at the right time,” he said.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)

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