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[News Focus] Park faces fallout from Sung scandal

President Park Geun-hye’s return from her recent Latin America tour Monday is expected to be plagued by a series of tough tasks, namely minimizing the damage of a recent graft scandal that left the integrity of her administration in question.

Upon her return, she is expected to find a replacement for Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo, who last week offered his resignation after being accused of receiving money from deceased businessman Sung Woan-jong. Seven others from Park’s administration and the ruling Saenuri Party were also embroiled in the scandal, which is a major blow to Park.

Lee has already relayed his duties as premier to Deputy Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan, and Park is expected to accept his resignation shortly after her return home, according to officials.

Finding Lee’s replacement appears to be a daunting task, considering the past nomination fiascos that have ailed the Park administration: Three out of five prime ministerial candidates were felled by scandal prior to even taking office.

Observers like politics professor Choi Young-jin of Choong-ang University have speculated that Lee’s successor is likely to be a politician with a neutral image to procure support from both ruling and opposition parties.

Cheong Wa Dae is reportedly working on finding the next candidate for the premier, although some speculate the actual announcement may come after the parliamentary by-elections slated for Wednesday.

Finding Lee’s replacement, however, appears to be the tip of the iceberg as Park faces a bitter struggle to regain the public’s trust.

Some of those suspected of receiving money from Sung include people who were in charge of finance at Park’s election campaign during the 2012 presidential election, sparking suspicion the money was used as an illegal election fund.

The main opposition New Politics for Alliance has defined the scandal as an illegal election funds case and suggested an independent parliamentary investigation. The party also protested against the ruling party’s “attempt to throw the blame” to the opposition by highlighting questions behind Sung’s special pardon by former President Roh Moo-hyun.

“The integrity and legitimacy of Park administration is completely compromised, yet it continues to water down (the scandal) by dragging the opposition along instead of investigating the eight involved,” said NPAD leader Moon Jae-in.

He added that Park is the “direct beneficiary” of the alleged transaction since the money supposedly given by Sung was used as election funds. “Park and Cheong Wa Dae must step away from commanding the investigation, and guarantee a fair probe,” Moon said.

The Saenuri Party attempted to diffuse public frustration over the weekend.

“The president will issue an apology of some form concerning the scandal during the investigation process,” Saenuri Party chief Rep. Kim Moo-sung told reporters Sunday.

Kim also said the next prime minister should be someone that could “bring the people together.”

Upon her return, Park is expected to boost her political and social reform drive to overhaul the labor, education, public office and finance sectors, but she is likely to be cold-shouldered by the opposition, with intensifying protests from the involved parties.

The government has so far warned stern punishment for those participating in last week’s strike against the government’s pension plans, a key element of Park’s social reform.

Park’s approval rating dropped 5 percentage points to 34 percentage points immediately after the scandal, according to Gallup Korea. The president’s most recent approval rating ― announced Friday ― went up slightly to 35 percent.

By Yoon Min-sik (