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Yoon revives civil affairs office as first lady faces investigation

Yoon says new office not to deal with his legal issues, but to understand people sentiment

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : May 7, 2024 - 14:37

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President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) and nominee of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Kim Joo-hyun attend a press conference at the presidential office in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) and nominee of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Kim Joo-hyun attend a press conference at the presidential office in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday named former prosecutor Kim Joo-hyun as the new senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, a position he abolished two years ago to curb accusations that it meddles in probes by the prosecution and the police.

The revival of the senior presidential secretary immediately prompted speculation that Yoon's office might use the new senior secretary position to deal with legal issues potentially involving him and his family, given that the position traditionally has had the power to control South Korea's prosecution. The prosecution on the same day said it would launch a probe into a so-called "Dior bag scandal" involving Yoon's wife Kim Keon Hee.

In response to the speculation, Yoon told reporters in his office in Seoul that the absence of the position had prevented the presidential office from properly collecting public opinion, stressing that the decision "was for the sake of the South Korean people."

Kim, 63, echoed Yoon's rationale and said he would "do his best to have the public opinion reflected in policy direction."

Yoon added that the accusations against himself and his family members "will be dealt with by himself, not the new presidential aide." Yoon will hold a presidential news conference on Thursday.

First lady Kim, who has been out of public view for nearly five months, faces accusations of violating antigraft legislation last year in her alleged acceptance of a luxury bag, and of involvement in a stock price manipulation scheme in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has been seeking a special probe into a separate allegation that Yoon had been involved in coercing an investigator to abandon charges against a division commander over the death of a marine who was swept away in flooding during a rescue operation last year.

When asked whether the revived civil affairs office would retain authority over the prosecution and police, a senior official of the presidential office said on condition of anonymity that nominee Kim will "have a clear idea over how to lead his office."

Kim's office will encompass work supervised by the presidential secretary for civil service discipline, the secretary for legal affairs and the secretary for civil affairs, the official added.

Under Kim's civil affairs office, Lee Won-mo, former presidential secretary for personnel affairs, was reportedly tapped to become the secretary for civil service discipline dedicated to discipline inspection on high-ranking officials, while Lee Dong-ok, former Interior Ministry spokesperson, was named as the new secretary for civil affairs who will be tasked with collecting popular opinion.

President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) and nominee of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Kim Joo-hyun attend a press conference at the presidential office in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) and nominee of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Kim Joo-hyun attend a press conference at the presidential office in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

The creation of the civil affairs office, meanwhile, comes as part of a wider reorganization of presidential office staff.

Yoon appointed political heavyweights Chung Jin-suk as chief of staff and Hong Chul-ho as senior presidential secretary for political affairs in mid-April.

Kim, the new senior presidential secretary nominee, was formerly vice justice minister and former deputy prosecutor general of the Supreme Prosecutors' Office.

Kim does not need to go through a parliamentary hearing before he begins his term. Yoon's office said Kim would start serving in his office "following a necessary procedure" and did not disclose further details on the timeframe.

Tuesday's announcement reverses Yoon's stance, as he has long opposed having a senior secretary dedicated to civil affairs in his office, which has typically been dedicated to collecting public opinion, handling information related to key presidential officials and keeping government entities with investigative power in check.

Upon his presidential election victory in March 2022, Yoon described the office of senior presidential secretary for civil affairs as a tool to "oppress political opponents and detractors" and to "conduct background checks of ordinary citizens."

Yoon repealed the position upon his inauguration in May 2022, becoming the first president in 23 years to do so after the late Kim Dae-jung. Kim removed the position in 1997 and revived it in 1999.