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Beleaguered Park replaces key aides

President Park Geun-hye on Sunday accepted the resignations of chief of staff, top political and policy coordination secretaries and some of her longest-serving aides in a bid to contain the fallout from an unbridled influence-peddling scandal pivoting around her old friend.

Yet political and public pressure has only continued to mount on the commander in chief, with opposition and even ruling party lawmakers calling for a launch of a neutral Cabinet to take over some key executive duties from Cheong Wa Dae.

Park appointed Choi Jai-kyung, a lawyer who served as a former deputy minister for planning and coordination at the Justice Ministry and head of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office’s central investigation unit, to be the new senior secretary for civil affairs, replacing Woo Byung-woo. 

Presidential spokesman Jung Youn-kuk speaks at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Presidential spokesman Jung Youn-kuk speaks at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)

Bae Sung-rye, a former National Assembly spokesperson and television journalist, was tapped to succeed Kim Sung-woo as the top press secretary.

But the president has yet to decide on the replacements of Chief of Staff Lee Won-jong, Ahn Chong-bum, the senior secretary for policy coordination, and Kim Jae-won, the senior secretary for political affairs, Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Jung Youn-kuk told reporters.

Park has also accepted the resignations tendered by her three closest aides -- Jeong Ho-seong, Lee Jae-man and Ahn Bong-geun -- who have been working for her for nearly two decades.

The announcement came a day after all of the 10 chief presidential secretaries offered to step down in the aftermath of the scandal. Chief of Staff Lee Won-jong submitted his resignation Wednesday.

Woo and Ahn Chong-bum are suspected of assisting in Choi’s raising of over $70 million in slush funds from major conglomerates, while the three longest-serving assistants have allegedly been playing a bridging role between the president and Choi.

Yet with the scandal continuing to unravel and Park’s leadership in free fall, the ruling and opposition parties ratcheted up calls for a more sweeping personnel overhaul to forestall any potential government vacuum.

Also on Sunday, the ruling Saenuri Party convened an emergency meeting of senior members and agreed to recommend the president form a neutral Cabinet, while reaffirming its demand for an across-the-board shake-up of Cheong Wa Dae staff.

“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 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 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.

Earlier in the day, former Gyeonggi Gov. Sohn Hak-kyu urged Park to designate a new premier and the rival parties to forge a coalition.

Ahn, for his part, called on the president to also hand over her diplomatic authority to a prime minister approved by the assembly.

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.

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

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.

News reports suggested the Saenuri leadership recommended Kim Chong-in and Sohn as promising premier nominees during a meeting with Park on Friday, and already sounded out Kim’s interest in the role. The party denied the reports as “groundless.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (