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NIS head named new chief of staff

President Park Geun-hye appointed spy agency chief Lee Byung-kee as her new chief of staff Friday, wrapping up her reshuffle of key officials aimed at restoring public support for her reform drive.

Lee, a former career diplomat, replaces Kim Ki-choon 10 days after Park accepted his resignation. Kim had been under pressure to quit as opposition parties accused him of exercising too much power in state affairs and personnel choices.

Lee, one of Park’s closest aides, was tapped to lead the National Intelligence Service last year. Before this, he had served as South Korean ambassador to Japan. 

Park also named Lee Byung-ho, former deputy director of the NIS, as new head of the spy agency.

President Park Geun-hye appointed spy agency chief Lee Byung-kee as her new chief of staff Friday. (Yonhap)
President Park Geun-hye appointed spy agency chief Lee Byung-kee as her new chief of staff Friday. (Yonhap)
“Lee Byung-kee is expected to smoothly assist the president, lead the presidential office and open communication between the people and Cheong Wa Dae with his experience and leadership in state affairs and inter-Korean relations,” said presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook.

Park’s appointment of Lee as chief secretary came nearly two months after she vowed to reorganize the presidential office and carry out a partial Cabinet reshuffle, and two days before she leaves for a nine-day trip to the Middle East. She appointed former Saenuri floor leader Lee Wan-koo as new prime minister and replaced the maritime, transport and unification ministers. She has been facing demands both from the ruling and the main opposition parties to start afresh with a new lineup amid deepening public distrust of her policy directions on economy and welfare.

Her choice of Lee as chief of staff was rather surprising as he was not mentioned as a candidate for the post by political circles or the press.

Some conservative observers say that Park’s decision to employ the former diplomat as her chief secretary reflects her will to change her state management style. Lee’s predecessor, Kim Ki-choon, was a former prosecutor and justice minister. Having him close to her highlighted Park’s pursuit of leadership based on principles and the rule of law, but also contributed to perceptions of her as an uncommunicative and authoritarian leader.

Lee has been an influential political mentor for Park for more than a decade. He worked as a vice chairman of Park’s campaign during her intraparty race for presidential nomination in 2007 and an advisor during her presidential campaign in 2012. As a diplomat, he also worked at the Korean embassies in Switzerland and Kenya.

But the new chief of staff is expected to draw fierce criticism from the opposition party. 

He was attacked by the opposition over allegations that he had delivered massive funds to the election camp of Lee Hoi-chang, the presidential candidate of the Grand National Party, the predecessor to the Saenuri Party, in 2002. His accumulation of wealth is also likely to be an issue. 

As Lee is leaving his post at the NIS after just eight months, this could also create a vacuum in South Korea’s diplomatic and security team, critics say.

After the announcement was made, Lee said he had declined to take the post several times but accepted the offer due to his affection for the country.

“I feel grave responsibility to take the post in this difficult time,” he said.

For her special advisors for political affairs, Park named three lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party -- Reps. Yoon Sang-hyun, Joo Ho-young and Kim Jae-won. Former legislator Kim Kyung-jae was also appointed as special presidential advisor for public relations and Kim Seong-woo, former TV journalist, as her new senior press secretary.

NIS chief-nominee Lee Byung-ho will be subjected to a confirmation hearing, though no parliamentary vote is required.

“For 26 years, Lee served various posts at the NIS including second deputy chief and team head of international affairs, which allowed him to gain rich experience and professionalism,” said Min.

By Cho Chung-un (

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