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Moon’s top aide returns to work after offering to resign over personnel spat

Cheong Wa Dae heaves big sigh of relief, brushing off lame-duck speculation

President Moon Jae-in’s senior secretary for civil affairs and justice Shin Hyun-soo attends a weekly meeting of top aides with the president at Cheong Wa Dae on Monday. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in’s senior secretary for civil affairs and justice Shin Hyun-soo attends a weekly meeting of top aides with the president at Cheong Wa Dae on Monday. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in’s senior secretary for civil affairs and justice Shin Hyun-soo has withdrawn his resignation after the president turned it down last week, putting a tentative end to a weeklong dispute over possible internal conflicts within the presidential office.

“Shin has returned to work, entrusting his future to the president’s decision,” said Chung Man-ho, senior presidential secretary for public communication, during a media briefing Monday, adding that he had also attended the president’s weekly meeting with key aides earlier in the day.

Shin’s possible departure had drawn attention from the public and political circles as it came less than two months after the former prosecutor was appointed to the post, tasked with mediating between the Justice Ministry and the prosecution amid lingering political disputes over prosecution reform.

Shin, a confidant of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, had tendered his resignation last week in protest against an unexpected prosecution reshuffle announced earlier this month by newly appointed Justice Minister Park Beom-kye, claiming related consultations were still ongoing.

After news reports suggested that Shin insisted on resigning despite Moon’s dissuasion, the opposition called the latest development a clear sign of a lame-duck presidency.

“There have been a series of disputes involving all senior secretaries of civil affairs, the president’s key aides,” Kim Sung-won, deputy floor leader of the main opposition People Power Party, said in a statement Sunday.

“Moon’s lame-duck presidency is deepening as he nears his final days in office.”

After the president rejected his resignation, Shin took four days off to ponder his future.

Cheong Wa Dae -- which spent the past week attempting to quell questions about its personnel management and communications -- appears to have breathed a sigh of relief now that Shin is staying put.

Chief press secretary Chung reaffirmed that Moon had been well informed about the situation at every step, brushing off speculation that even the president could have been ignored when the justice minister, a three-term lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, unilaterally announced the reshuffle of senior prosecutors.

The minister also echoed the Cheong Wa Dae announcement during a parliamentary hearing later in the day.

“I think I have fully communicated with both the presidential office and the prosecution on the reshuffle,” he said, denying that the reshuffle was announced without approval from the president.

Shin is the fourth presidential secretary for civil affairs under Moon’s presidency and the first former prosecutor to hold the post, which puts him at the center of the president’s prosecutorial reform drive.

After his predecessors’ controversial tenures, expectations were high for Shin as a de facto point man in resolving tensions between the Justice Ministry and the prosecution after a drawn-out battle that escalated late last year.

Cheong Wa Dae sources say the president is unlikely to replace him anytime soon but it remains to be seen whether Shin will survive what could be the last major Cabinet reshuffle during Moon’s tenure, which ends in May next year.

“Further internal disputes within the presidential office could leave a sizable dent in his leadership and policy drive in the final stretch of his presidency,” said a source on condition of anonymity.

The president is said to be working on a modest reshuffle of Cabinet members -- including Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, who is mulling a bid for president next year -- in the coming weeks, around the time of mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan in early April. 

By Lee Ji-yoon (jylee@heraldcorp.com)
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