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(5th LD) PM nominee voices regret over controversial remarks

All Headlines 20:43 June 12, 2014

(ATTN: UPDATES with comments by Moon's representative in 9-10 paras; ADDS photo)
By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, June 12 (Yonhap) -- The nominee to be South Korea's new prime minister expressed regret Thursday over his controversial remarks seen as disparaging the country, in an apparent attempt to assuage negative public opinion and win parliamentary confirmation.

The move came hours after Moon Chang-keuk ruled out an apology for his 2011 speech at a local church in which he said Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and the subsequent division of the peninsula into capitalistic South Korea and communist North Korea were God's will.

"The speech could possibly have been distant from the sentiments of ordinary people as (I delivered) it inside the church. It is regrettable that misunderstanding has arisen because of this," Moon said in a comment provided by the prime minister's office.

(5th LD) PM nominee voices regret over controversial remarks - 2

Moon, an elder of a big church in Seoul, vowed to carry out state affairs in a balanced and fair manner if confirmed by the parliament.

In the 2011 speech, he also described a bloody clash between the government and citizens in 1948 as a revolt, a sensitive comment in a country that has long been divided along ideological lines.

Historians claim tens of thousands of people on the southern resort island of Jeju were killed or injured and three-quarters of the island's villages destroyed in the violence.

In 2003, then President Roh Moo-hyun apologized to the victims of the military crackdown and promised to restore their honor, though some conservative South Koreans still view the incident as a revolt as labeled by past authoritarian governments.

Moon's church speech clouded his prospects of winning parliamentary confirmation at a time when President Park Geun-hye is struggling to restore public confidence in her administration, which has been battered by the fallout from a deadly ferry disaster in April.

Later in the day, the nominee's confirmation preparation team said it will take legal action against broadcaster KBS, accusing it of "maliciously distorting" Moon's comments by airing only part of the church lecture.

"The malicious, distorted report does not consider the context of the full text, only highlighting certain expressions," Lee Seok-woo, the prime ministerial office's communications director, said in a briefing. "We will post the full text and video clip of the appointee's lecture on the Prime Minister's website to let people make their own judgment."

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy urged Park to withdraw the latest nomination, condemning Moon for making "anti-national and outrageous comments."

The opposition party called the nomination the worst ever since South Korea came into being in 1948.

Moon made comments that made people "confuse whether he is a nominee of the Republic of Korea or an official of the Government General of Korea," Park Young-sun, floor leader of the opposition party, said in a speech at the National Assembly, referring to South Korea's official name and Japanese authority during the colonial rule.

Some lawmakers of the ruling Saenuri Party demanded Moon's voluntary withdrawal.

"In order to rise to the ranks of a nation's leadership, such as the post of prime minister, one must have a sound view of history that the public can identify with," six first-term lawmakers said in a joint statement.

The strong backlash underscored sensitivity among many South Koreans toward Japan and its previous colonial rule. Many South Koreans still harbor deep resentment against Japan, which critics say keeps trying to whitewash and glorify its past wrongdoing.

It is not the first time that religious comments by a high-profile official have stirred controversy in a religiously diverse country.

In 2004, then Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak, a devout Christian, said he would "dedicate Seoul to God," during a prayer service, sparking harsh public criticism, especially from the Buddhist community. Lee is Park's immediate predecessor.

South Korea has a Buddhist community of more than 10.7 million, followed by Protestants numbering more than 8.6 million and Catholics numbering more than 5.1 million as of 2005, the latest year for which religious statistics are available, according to the country's statistics office.

Last month, Park's first choice for prime minister, Ahn Dai-hee, withdrew his nomination amid criticism that he had made too much money as a lawyer last year by allegedly benefiting from his status as a former Supreme Court justice.

Outgoing Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, who offered to quit following the ferry disaster, will remain in the job until Moon is confirmed by the National Assembly, where Park's conservative party commands a majority.


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