|Prime minister-nominee Chung Hong-won speaks at the first day of his confirmation hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap News)|
Past remarks, privileged careers and close ties with the iron-fisted ruler Park Chung-hee haunt President-elect Park Geun-hye’s top nominees, raising questions about their relevance for the elevated ethical standards of today’s Korea and its new policy goals of balancing growth and welfare.
Except for the prime minister-designate whose confirmation hearing began on Wednesday, all the Cabinet member nominees are to be grilled by the National Assembly after Park’s Feb. 25 inauguration. Members of the presidential office, meanwhile, do not require parliamentary approval.
Aside from typical allegations of technical misdeeds, some of them face questions over contradicting past stances on Park’s key policy direction, their records in working in her father’s dictatorial government, and privileges that some allegedly enjoyed in jobs outside their public posts.
Among those at the center of debate are Hyun Oh-seok, deputy prime minister-designate for economy, and Cho Won-dong, named senior presidential secretary for economy.
Both of them have been outspokenly opposed to wider welfare.
Hyun, for instance, said in an opinion forum for JoongAng Ilbo as president of Korea Development Institute in April last year that without economic growth, the creation of jobs that is the basis of welfare would be difficult.
Critics point out that such a stance is distant from Park’s vision to create more jobs from the social service sectors in a move going beyond the discourse on economic growth in the past.
Cho, who was head of the Korea Institute of Public Finance, has also reportedly contended that increased taxation is the only way to implement welfare projects costing over 10 trillion won ($9.3 billion) yearly. Opponents claim such a position runs counter to Park’s plan that 27 trillion won can be set aside annually without increasing taxes.
As chief government members on the economy, the two are to be in charge of securing the finances for various welfare plans devised by the Prime Minister’s Office or the Welfare Ministry.
The main opposition Democratic United Party questioned Park’s commitment to her economic democratization pledge.
“Hyun and Cho are not fit to execute their work based on the economic democratization blueprint,” said vice spokesman Heo Young-il, in a statement directed to economist Kim Chong-in, Park’s former economic policymaker and well-known flag bearer of economic democratization.
“People are feeling deeply betrayed by Park’s decision to entrust the nation’s economic policy with the people of a neo-liberalistic and growth-oriented mindset with a sense of entitlement,” Heo said.
Past comments made by defense minister-designate Kim Byung-kwan also came under scrutiny.
“(Kim’s) past comments such as how a military-led administration would be inevitable at a time of sudden change in North Korea or his abasement of China are extremely inappropriate,” said Democratic United Party spokesman Park Yong-jin, referring to reports citing Kim’s blog posts that have since been deleted.
Attention is also focused on some of the nominees’ past relations with Park’s late father, whose authoritarian rule in the 1960s and 1970s continues to receive sharply divided evaluation.
Huh Tae-yeol, who was named presidential chief of staff, for instance, worked as a rank-and-file member of the Cheong Wa Dae secretariat between 1974 and 1979, when the senior Park was in office.
Kim Byung-kwan is said to have received an award from senior Park as he graduated summa cum laude from the Korea Military Academy in 1972. Him carrying a picture of senior Park and former first lady Yook Young-soo inside a pendant linked to his phone drew substantive media attention upon his designation.
Suh Seoung-hwan, land and transportation minister-designate, is also known for being a son of Suh Jong-cheol, a former defense minister between 1973 and 1977 and a participant in the May 16 military coup in 1961 led by the senior Park.
“(Park) should deem it a serious problem that there are concerns of whether a force of ‘crown princes’ is being formed here with those linked to former President Park being named to the key posts, as if they are carrying on the family line,” DUP’s Park Yong-jin said.
Meanwhile, a number of bureaucrats that have been named to join the Cabinet are criticized for their hefty accumulation of wealth by joining private institutes after they leave their public posts, which the opposition claims is a result of unfair privilege and ethically problematic.
While joining a private company is completely legal, returning to the public post thereafter is ethically questionable, they say.
“There is an ethical problem for one to make excessive personal profit after retirement,” DUP Rep. Min Byung-doo said in a radio interview, referring to the debate surrounding prime minister-designate Chung Hong-won’s some 550 million won increase in bank savings in 20 months, during which he was working in a law firm after retirement. The Prime Minister’s Office has countered the argument that the pay was not excessive considering Chung’s over 30 years of experience in the legal field.
The transition committee members were not available for comment on the controversies.
By Lee Joo-hee (email@example.com)