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Yoon shakes up staff amid crumbling popularity

Yoon speaks during a press conference on Aug. 17. (Yonhap)
Yoon speaks during a press conference on Aug. 17. (Yonhap)

After a tumultuous first 100 days, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s office announced a set of new hires on Sunday in a first major shake-up of his staff.

Most notably, Yoon’s office is bringing back the chief of staff for policy, among the first senior roles eliminated when Yoon was inaugurated in May. Kim Dae-ki, Yoon’s chief of staff, explained at a press briefing that the role was being reinstated for “better coordination” between the presidential office and the Cabinet.

Lee Kwan-sup, the vice chairperson of the Korea International Trade Association, was chosen to serve as Yoon’s first chief of staff for policy, according to Sunday’s announcement from the presidential office.

The chief of staff for policy would oversee the administration’s domestic policy agenda, the presidential office said.

Lee is a career bureaucrat who, in 2018, resigned as president of the public operator of the country’s nuclear and hydroelectric plants in an apparent protest against the Moon Jae-in administration’s nuclear phaseout.

Another key addition is Lim Jong-deuk, who was defense secretary for former President Park Geun-hye.

Lim will fill in as the second deputy national security adviser, a post that has been vacant since the last person to hold the job, Shin In-ho, stepped down earlier this month due to ill health.

The presidential office said journalist-turned-lawmaker Rep. Kim Eun-hye, who served as the spokesperson for Yoon’s transition team, will be replacing Choi Young-bum as senior secretary for public relations. Kim was previously spokesperson for former President Lee Myung-bak’s Cheong Wa Dae.

Choi, the current senior secretary for public relations, will be moved to the post of special adviser on external cooperation.

On the criticism that Yoon was backtracking on his election promises, his chief of staff Kim said that “changes to the presidential staff should be made organically.” “But we’re still operating on the general, underlying principle of working with a slim staff,” he said.

As a candidate, Yoon had pledged to shrink the size of his staff in favor of a “small but efficient” presidential office, criticizing then-President Moon’s “huge staff.”

The shake-up comes after Yoon saw his approval rating fall below 30 percent in recent weeks.

In the Aug. 16-18 Gallup poll of 1,000 adults aged 18 and older, 28 percent said they approved of the president’s performance. This is higher than the 25 percent and 24 percent seen in the previous two weeks but still remarkably low for presidents in their first year.

The plan for staff changes first emerged following the Aug. 17 press conference marking Yoon’s 100 days as president, where he was grilled about faltering approval numbers and controversies surrounding his appointments.

Policy proposals, such as legally allowing children to start school at five and doing away with the weekly limit on working hours, have been met with significant public backlash.

He has still yet to appoint his deputy prime minister and health minister, after the last nominees dropped out following damaging allegations. Several other minister-level and vice minister positions also remain unfilled.

At the press conference, Yoon said that he would “diagnose the problem starting with the presidential office.”

It wasn’t until two years into his office that a similar shake-up was undertaken in Moon’s Cheong Wa Dae. Former presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak took 162 days and 117 days, respectively, to reshuffle their Cheong Wa Dae staff.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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