President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday went ahead with the appointment of Rep. Yoo Eun-hae of the ruling Democratic Party as the new education minister, in spite of objections from opposition lawmakers over her apparent ethical lapses -- including falsifying her home address so she could enroll her daughter in a prestigious elementary school in central Seoul.
“We are aware that there is opposition to Yoo in the parliament, mainly among opposition lawmakers,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, a Cheong Wa Dae spokesman.
“But we don’t believe that the views expressed by the opposition lawmakers (on this issue) reflect the opinions of the majority of the general public.”
Newly-appointed Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae smiles after being appointed by President Moon Jae-in (right) at Cheong Wa Dae on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Yoo, who also serves as deputy prime minister for social affairs, is being appointed without parliamentary approval, as the National Assembly on Monday failed to meet the deadline for the release of a report on the outcome of her confirmation hearing. Cheong Wa Dae, however, does not require parliamentary approval for ministerial appointments.
Prior to the controversial appointment, some 70,000 Koreans had signed an online petition since late August, asking the presidential office to withdraw the nomination.
The main opposition Liberty Korea Party had opposed Yoo’s appointment, saying her past “ethical infractions” made her unfit to serve as education minister.
On top of the controversy over the falsified address, Yoo’s adult son was exempted from the compulsory military service on health grounds that some lawmakers questioned.
Yoo said she used a false address in 1997 because she wanted her daughter to be with her kindergarten friends at her elementary school.
The 56-year-old said she was about to give birth to her second child at the time, and wanted her daughter to have a smooth transition from kindergarten to elementary school as she was soon going to be occupied with the newborn baby. She apologized for fabricating her address.
Opposition lawmakers, however, questioned her explanation, as her daughter’s alma mater, Deoksu Elementary School, is considered one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Seoul.
Her adult son injured his knee while doing judo when he was 14, Yoo explained. He underwent two surgical procedures, the reason for his exemption from the military service, she added.
Opposition lawmakers, however, claimed the official health condition which led him to be exempted -- knee instability -- is something that is easily curable.
A large number of adult children of lawmakers in the past have been “questionably exempted” from serving the military duty with the same medical condition, they added.
Cheong Wa Dae, however, said they believe Yoo “has adequately apologized for what she needed to apologize for” and that both her apology and explanation were “sufficient.”
“There are many education-related issues and events that require immediate attention,” said Kim on behalf of Cheong Wa Dae. “We felt that we could not postpone this appointment any longer.”
Opposition lawmakers criticized Cheong Wa Dae’s decision immediately, calling it a “form of violence” and saying the presidential office had circumvented the authority of the parliament.
“The education minister should be someone who has no history of ethical lapses, rather than someone who hasn’t done anything too serious,” said Kim Sung-tae, the floor leader of the Liberty Korea Party. “The current administration is ignoring both the parliament and the citizens by proceeding with this appointment.”
Yoo is not the first minister to have misrepresented her address for the sake of her children’s education.
Current Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha also has admitted to using the wrong address to enroll her daughter at her own alma mater, after her daughter spent a significant number of years overseas as a child.
While admitting to an ethical breach, Kang said she only did it because she wanted her child to have a smooth transition from her life in the US to the one in Korea.
Yoo is under heavier criticism as her ethical lapses are seen as particularly inappropriate for an education minister.
South Korea is notorious for its hyper-competitive education system, where one’s academic prospects increasingly depend on his or her parents’ socioeconomic status.