Lee, the 64-year-old governor of South Jeolla Province, was tapped to lead the new president’s Cabinet on Wednesday.
The announcement was made during Moon’s first press conference on the first day at work, held at the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae in the early afternoon. The nomination requires a parliamentary confirmation. The newly minted president also named his first chiefs of the presidential secretariat and national intelligence agency -- Im Jong-seok and Suh Hoon, respectively.
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Having started his career as a journalist at national daily the DongA Ilbo in the 1980s, Lee entered politics in 2000 and held his parliamentary seat for four consecutive terms.
Throughout those years, his constituency was in South Jeolla Province, where he was born in 1952 and where he was later elected as governor in 2014.
His nomination as chief of the Cabinet was an apparent effort by the new president to fulfill his vow to end regional divides and achieve national unity.
“As I am from Yeongnam, I shall bring in someone who is not from the region as prime minister,” Moon said repeatedly during his campaign, when asked about his blueprint on Cabinet organization.
Yeongnam refers to the southeastern part of the country, including the North and South Gyeongsang provinces, Busan and Ulsan, and is used in contrast to Honam, which is the southwestern region of the North and South Jeolla Provinces and Gwangju.
Honam has long served as a reliable stronghold for liberals in South Korea, but has often stood at odds against Moon.
By recruiting the South Jeolla Province governor, Moon is apparently hoping to reach out not only to estranged Honam voters, but also to the centrist People’s Party, which has established its political base in the given region.
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“Though I didn‘t frequently meet with the president, he once told me earlier this year that he would take Honam as a key partner in state affairs and that he wishes to recruit me in his administration,” the prime minister nominee told reporters during the Blue House press conference.
Another key feature of the incoming prime minister is his expertise in public communication, having started his career as a political journalist.
It was upon the recommendation of former President Kim Dae-jung that Lee entered politics, and during his four terms he often served as a spokesperson, earning the nickname “fifth-term spokesperson.”
Following the 2002 presidential election, he was the official media channel chief for then-President-elect Roh Moo-hyun and later as joint election chief for Moon’s election camp during the 2012 presidential race.
His close ties with both of the former liberal presidents, as well as his strong foothold in Honam and communication skills, made him an ideal figure to adjust the balance between the new president and in-party power groups.
“Having both served the same presidential candidate in the past, I believe that President Moon and I generally share a similar way of thinking,” Lee said.
“Should I happen to have different ideas over detailed practices, I will not hesitate to deliver my thoughts to the president.”
Some pointed to Lee’s lack of experience in central administration as his greatest weakness as prime minister, but the governor hit back at such claims.
“I have experience as a lawmaker and a governor. I may not be perfect, but am nevertheless up for the job (as prime minister),” he told reporters Wednesday.
Moon’s chief of staff Im is a 50-year-old former lawmaker who worked as part of Moon’s campaign. Suh, the new director of the National Intelligence Service, is a professor on North Korean studies and served at the spy agency for over 28 years.
By Bae Hyun-jung (firstname.lastname@example.org)