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Lee to replace several Cabinet ministers Friday

Partial reshuffle signals beginning of ruling bloc’s post-election overhaul


President Lee Myung-bak is expected to name five or six new Cabinet minister designates Friday, about a week after the ruling party’s by-election defeat and just before taking off for a weeklong trip to Europe.

Outgoing ministers this time will include those who have been in the Cabinet for more than two years, have offered to resign or have made unprofessional blunders.

Cheong Wa Dae has scrambled to find their replacements, however, as the successors need to pass through the government’s toughened screening process and the nationally televised parliamentary confirmation hearings where opposition politicians gear up to humiliate them with questions on their integrity.

The nominations were previously scheduled to take place earlier this week but were postponed to “after Children’s Day and before Lee departs for Europe on Sunday,” according to Lee’s top aide for public relations Hong Sang-pyo.

Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-hyun, bureaucrat for three decades, and Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, political scientist who helped design the Lee administration’s North Korea policy, were appointed more than two years ago in early 2009.

Lee is expected to name Yu Woo-ik, one of his closest aides, as successor to Hyun, possibly to prepare for an inter-Korean summit in the remainder of his presidency.

The former geography professor had served as President Lee’s first chief-of-staff for four months in 2008 and as ambassador to China, North Korea’s main benefactor and ally, since late 2009.

In October 2009, Yim Tae-hee, then labor minister, three-term lawmaker and currently presidential chief-of-staff, had reportedly met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s envoy in Singapore to discuss conditions for an inter-Korean summit, but failed to agree on the terms such as where and when the meeting should take place.

President Lee has repeatedly said that he was willing to meet with Kim as long as the North shows a “sincere change of attitude” toward denuclearization and the deaths of South Koreans it caused in recent years.

Also high on the list for replacement are Environment Minister Lee Man-eui and Land Minister Chung Jong-hwan, President Lee’s longest serving ministers since the beginning of his administration more than three years ago.

Agriculture Minister Yoo Jeong-bok, a key member of the Grand National Party’s minor faction that supports Lee’s political archrival Park Geun-hye, had offered to resign over the nation’s worst-ever foot-and-mouth disease outbreak last winter after the government’s quarantine efforts contain the animal epidemic.

The planned Cabinet reshuffle signals the beginning of a sweeping overhaul of the ruling bloc which will be epitomized by the GNP’s upcoming leadership change as early as late June and a possible shakeup of the president’s top aides.

Lee reportedly told his senior staff to pack up and leave in May if they plan to run in the general elections next year.

Yim, who gave up his third parliamentary seat last year to serve Lee, said after the GNP’s electoral defeat last week that he and his staff were “always ready to take infinite responsibility over anything to fully assist the president.”

The apparent offer to resign came as Kang Jae-sup, whom Yim backed, lost the parliamentary by-election to the main opposition Democratic Party’s leader and presidential hopeful Sohn Hak-kyu in Yim’s former constituency of Bundang-B.

Yim’s support of Kang reportedly made Lee frown as the ruling bloc scrambled to select a candidate to field in the GNP’s longtime stronghold of Bundang.

Some observers say, however, that Lee is unlikely to replace Yim, even if he plans to run in the general elections next year, as Yim has served as presidential chief-of-staff for only 10 months and has done nothing to jeopardize keeping his job.

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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