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Calls rise for neutral cabinet to take over presidential duties

With the leadership of President Park Geun-hye in free fall, the ruling and opposition camps on Sunday stepped up calls for a launch of a neutral Cabinet to take over some of key executive duties and refurbish administrative management.

The ruling Saenuri Party convened an emergency meeting of senior members and agreed to recommend Park form a neutral Cabinet while reaffirming its demand for an across-the-board shake-up of Cheong Wa Dae staff. The session followed a Saturday gathering of core pro-Park legislators during which they explored ways for a sweeping personnel overhaul in the presidential palace and Cabinet.

The decision came as the influence-peddling scandal involving her confidante Choi Soon-sil continues to unravel, fanning concerns over a possible government vacuum. 
Rep. Kim Sung-won (Yonhap)
Rep. Kim Sung-won (Yonhap)
“We urge the president to set up a neutral Cabinet that could be approved by the ruling and opposition parties and trusted by the people,” Saenuri spokesman Rep. Kim Sung-won told reporters, adding the prosecution should carry out a thorough probe into the scandal given the return home of the disgraced Choi.

The neutral Cabinet concept has been gaining traction as leading opposition figures relay their proposals, including the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea’s previous head Moon Jae-in and the minor opposition People’s Party’s Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo. Senior ruling party members such as former Saenuri Chairman Rep. Kim Moo-sung and Gyeonggi Province Gov. Nam Kyung-pil have also expressed support for the move.

Other lawmakers and experts have floated a “premier with responsibilities” scheme intended to split the president’s administrative powers by ensuring the prime minister’s actual exercise of his right to nominate Cabinet members and recommend their dismissal as enshrined in the constitution.

On the campaign trail in 2012, Park herself said she would empower the premiership as an election pledge. Yet she has given little authority to her prime ministers throughout her nearly four years in office, especially in personnel affairs.

On Sunday, former Democratic Party Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu urged Park to designate a new premier and the rival parties to forge a coalition.

“Even if the president would not make the request, the National Assembly ought to agree on a prime minister candidate and demand her nomination,” he said at an event to celebrate his new book in Gangjin County, South Jeolla Province.

Earlier in the day, Minjoo Party Rep. Min Byung-doo offered to launch a campaign to collect 10 million signatures calling for the establishment of a neutral Cabinet, legislative action for prosecution reform and the minimization of presidential power until the scandal is cleared.

“The ruling and opposition parties, in cooperation with other parts of civil society, should immediately begin consultations to set up a neutral Cabinet,” Min said in a text message to reporters.

“While keeping her engagement in administration minimal until the Cabinet’s creation, the president should be prevented from exerting any influence in the investigation into the scandal.”

But the plan poses challenges given persistent strife within the parliament and a seemingly limited pool of candidates who could win bipartisan endorsement. It could be a more time-consuming process than other options due to the scale of the entailed reshuffle and parliamentary and administrative tasks to follow.

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn also cast doubt over the idea during last week’s parliamentary session, saying, “It will likely result in a mere war of words with no progress in state management.”

Among the names being mentioned for the new premiership or head Cabinet post are Sohn, former Minjoo Party interim chief Rep. Kim Chong-in, former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik and former Gyeonggi Province governor and lawmaker Rhee In-je.

Park, for her part, held closed-door talks with some 10 senior members of civil society later in the day after meeting with eight elder Saenuri advisers Saturday, Cheong Wa Dae said.

All of the 10 top presidential secretaries, including the embattled Ahn Chong-bum and Woo Byung-woo, tendered their resignations Saturday in line with Park’s instructions. Her Chief of Staff Lee Won-jong offered to step down last Wednesday, followed by her three closest aides, who are suspected to have been playing a bridging role between the president and Choi.

By Shin Hyon-hee  (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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