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[Newsmaker] New chief of staff faces revival mission

Park Geun-hye on Sunday embarked on her strategic trip to four wealthy Muslim countries in a bid to attract “oil money” in her efforts to reinvigorate the economy, in particular the construction sector, which has been in the doldrums since the 2008-09 global financial crisis.

Right before her departure for the Middle East, she replaced her chief of staff. The administration is seeking a turnaround in both political and economic credibility.
 
Lee Byung-kee. (Yonhap)
Lee Byung-kee. (Yonhap)

Lee Byung-kee, who was named chief of staff Friday, is not accompanying Park on her nine-day overseas trip. Instead, the former National Intelligence Service chief has been tasked with settling pending domestic issues, including new taxation policies, in coordination with economy-related ministers.

Lee, 68, is also required to seek close exchanges with the ruling Saenuri Party to improve communication with opposition parties, including the New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

But opposition lawmakers and civic groups have criticized him over his career track record. He is one of a select number who continuously served as a close aide to Park during the 2007 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

The main opposition party, in particular, point to his immediate previous position of spy chief, calling the designation of the incumbent NIS chief to the central post for state affairs “an unprecedented, inappropriate personnel policy.”

Lee is the first spymaster to be appointed to the chief of presidential staff since the naming of Park Gye-won during the Park Chung-hee military regime, 37 years ago.

Lee also worked for the Lee Hoi-chang camp during the 2002 presidential election.

Cheong Wa Dae has predicted that he will increase communication with the ruling party, the opposition and the public, citing his negotiation skills. The presidential office is also pinning hopes on him for a recovery in relations with North Korea and Japan.

“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.

Born in Seoul in 1947, Lee started his career as a public official after passing the Foreign Service Examination in 1974.

Lee, who worked as the ambassador to Japan in 2013, was named the 34th NIS director in 2014.

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.

The president 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 of personnel amid deepening public distrust of her policy directions on welfare and the economy.

By Kim Yon-se (kys@heraldcorp.com)
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