At first glance, Kim Byong-joon appears to be a long-shot for becoming the prime minister tasked with pulling the Park Geun-hye presidency from its biggest crisis sparked by a scandal involving her longtime friend.
Their checkered relationship began in 2004 when the 62-year-old nominee was policy chief for late President Roh Moo-hyun. Park was chair of the then-main opposition Grand National Party, the predecessor of the current ruling Saenuri Party.
They clashed over real estate, welfare and other policies, and the discord deepened as Park’s opposition staged a stringent protest against Roh’s drive to relocate the administrative capital to Sejong City.
Kim had won the trust of the liberal president in the campaign period and spearheaded the initiative as head of the Presidential Committee on Government Innovation & Decentralization before working at Cheong Wa Dae.
Kim Byong-joon, a professor of Kookmin University, gives a lecture at the Convention of the Saenuri Party election in Seoul on May 2015. (Yonhap)
In 2006, Kim, who taught public administration at Kookmin University, stepped down less than two weeks after being appointed as deputy prime minister for education amid the opposition’s offensive over thesis plagiarism allegations.
Yet he continued to serve Roh as a special policy adviser until returning to academia at the end of the president’s term in 2008.
In recent months, Kim has been vocal in criticizing the Park administration’s policies, such as on the reinstatement of state-authored history textbooks. During a lecture for Saenuri lawmakers last May, he lashed out at them for only engaging in a “power game” instead of serious policy discussions, which he said led to the party’s landslide defeat in the April general election.
Until recently, Kim had been floated as a likely candidate to succeed Rep. Park Jie-won as the minor opposition People’s Party’s interim chief.
Park’s latest selection of Kim as prime minister is seen as an attempt to defuse the opposition camp’s calls for accountability over the Choi Soon-sil debacle and the creation of a neutral Cabinet.
Though Kim is credited for his sound policy views and personal integrity, his path to the Prime Minister’s Office already faces hurdles as the three opposition parties dominating the parliament have pledged to veto his mandatory confirmation hearing.
A fresh source of contention also emerged Wednesday over the nominee’s ties to the father-in-law of Woo Byung-woo, the disgraced former senior presidential secretary for civil affairs implicated in the Choi scandal.
In 2013, Kim reportedly attended the funeral of Lee Sang-dal, the owner of a construction company, lauding his “confidence in clean, righteous and transparent management.”
Opposition lawmakers raised suspicions that Woo may still be wielding influence though he has been sacked. Kim’s remarks at the funeral could also prove problematic, given the ongoing investigation into tax evasion allegations involving Lee’s family company.
In a meeting with reporters Wednesday, Kim said he was there because Lee was head of a fraternity of fellow countrymen from Goryeong County, North Gyeongsang Province, and he did not know Woo at all.
Even if he passes the hearing, his future role would chiefly hinge on how much sway Park is willing to hand over.
In nominating Kim, Cheong Wa Dae apparently took into account demands for diluting the president’s administrative powers by making way for the prime minister to actually exert his constitutionally guaranteed right to pick other Cabinet members and request their dismissal. The designation of Park Seung-joo as the candidate for the new public safety and security minister was based on Kim’s recommendation.
Yet despite her election pledge to empower the premiership, Park has given so little leeway to her prime ministers throughout her nearly four years in office, especially in personnel affairs, they have been nicknamed “proxy speech readers.”
The latest nominations also triggered backlash even among some ruling party legislators due chiefly to the absence of prior consultations with not only the assembly, but other presidential aides who testified they heard the announcement from media.
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)