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(News Focus) President Lee prioritizes stability over change in picking premier

All Headlines 16:44 September 16, 2010

By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, Sept. 16 (Yonhap) -- President Lee Myung-bak's choice of a long-time judge and now the top state auditor as his new prime minister reflects his quest for stability, instead of taking risks again, in the latter half of his five-year presidency, experts said Thursday.

"President Lee seems to have chosen stability over change," Lee Chul-hee, vice head of Korea Society Opinion Institute, said with regard to the widely-anticipated nomination of Kim Hwang-sik, chairman of the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI).

He said the president's top consideration must have been the appointment of a nominee who would easily pass the National Assembly's confirmation hearing.

The president initially thought of a generational change in the country's leadership by surprisingly picking Kim Tae-ho, a 47-year-old former governor, as the replacement of Chung Un-chan, who resigned disgracefully after his push for revising a government relocation plan was foiled by the parliament.

But the Aug. 8 Cabinet shake-up is in the tatters as Kim resigned amid accusations of several unethical acts, including a lie about his personal ties with a businessman convicted of bribery during the National Assembly's confirmation hearing. Two others selected to ministerial posts also quit in the face of similar allegations over their morality.

The presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, expressed confidence that the new designate known for morality and integrity will be confirmed by the National Assembly. The BAI boss, 62, went through the confirmation hearing two years ago for his current job.

Opposition parties may raise questions again about his exemption from mandatory military service decades ago. Yim Tae-hee, presidential chief of staff, said it was a legitimate case as medical check-ups found problems in his eyesight at that time.

Analysts also agreed that Cheong Wa Dae appears to have considered the nominee's hometown. He was born in a small country town in South Jeolla Province. He became the first prime minister nominee from the southwestern province, a time-honored stronghold of the main opposition Democratic Party.

"I think President Lee sought a safe choice this time rather than an adventure," said Kim Meen-jeon, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University.

The president would not want to bear another political burden from tough confirmation hearings as his second half of leadership already got off to a rough start due to the failed Cabinet shake-up, she added.

If Lee's prime minister nominee becomes embroiled once again in legal or ethical controversy, it may sound the death knell for his ambitious "fair society" drive, she pointed out.

In fact, Cheong Wa Dae stressed that Kim is well qualified to champion the fair society campaign, a core policy of the Lee administration these days, given his personal background and career.

Many expect the nominee to pass confirmation hearings relatively easily as he is not affiliated with politics and any specific policy.

Some say the role of South Korea's prime minister will be weakened further while powerful Cabinet members such as Minister for Special Affairs Lee Jae-oh will have more say in government affairs. Lee, once a power broker, is said to be one of the potential presidential candidates. The next presidential election is scheduled for December 2012.


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