Foreign Minister nominee Yun Byung-se on Thursday ruled out the possibility of military options in upcoming U.N. and country-level sanctions against North Korea for its recent nuclear test.
“Major U.N. Security Council members including Korea are neither considering military sanctions nor expected to consider the issue,” the 60-year-old former deputy foreign minister said during his confirmation hearing at the National Assembly.
Yun is one of the key architects of President Park Geun-hye’s policy to restore trust with North Korea while maintaining strong deterrence.
Yun expressed opposition to some lawmakers’ calls to dispatch envoys to Pyongyang or arrange a summit between Park and leader Kim Jong-un, calling it “quite premature.”
“Since North Korea’s third nuclear test, the security situation on the Korean Peninsula has been more critical than at any time in the past,” he said.
“As we are in a phase that puts importance on international cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue, we have to find ways to defuse tension while giving priority to cooperation with the international community.”
Yun, regarded as a pragmatic conservative, has been criticized for his views that attach too much importance to the alliance with Washington at the expense of its ties with Beijing.
In a written answer to Saenuri Party lawmaker Won Yoo-chul, Yun picked the U.S. as the “top priority diplomatic partner” followed by China.
“The South Korea-U.S. alliance has played a core role in the maturity of our democracy, economic development and national security for the past 60 years,” he said.
“I see China as the next diplomatic partner after the U.S., given China’s economic importance as our biggest trade partner and investment destination, and its role in the peninsula’s peace and prosperity.”
The ministry said in a later statement that Yun’s remarks were not to “number the significance of diplomatic partners but to emphasize the importance of the country’s relationship with China as well as traditional ally the U.S.”
Opposition lawmakers also criticized him for his daughter’s taking of scholarships for underprivileged students while he earned a high salary from a major law firm after retiring from the ministry. Other allegations involve ethical lapses and tax evasion.
Despite a lingering furor over Park’s plan to deprive the Foreign Ministry of trade negotiating authority, Yun stuck to the initial proposal, saying it resulted from the presidential transition committee’s “sufficient discussions and reviews.”
“I do not want to raise a particular objection,” he told lawmakers. “I am taking a flexible stance on ways to boost national interests.”
President Park’s two other nominees for justice and education ministers also underwent confirmation hearings that focused on their past records and policy viewpoints.
Seo Nam-soo, who was tapped to lead the Ministry of Education, was grilled by opposition party members for alleged tax evasion and receiving a disproportionately high salary during his post-government job as a professor.
Rep. Jung Jin-hoo of the Progressive Justice Party accused Seo of falsifying his address for the resident registration to avoid the real estate tax when selling his extra apartment. Seo responded that the error resulted from his “deficient understanding of the law.”
Seo also vowed to significantly expand government support of higher education and vocational schools to diversify the nation’s talent pool.
“Within the five years of President Park Geun-hye’s term, I will expand the investment in higher education to have it reach one percent of the gross domestic product,” said Seo during the hearing.
“It would enable us to improve the quality of education. In particular, I will put focus on nurturing specialized schools and local ones.”
The education minister nominee also voiced criticism of poorly run universities, saying that “they must be liquidated,” while arguing that the college tuition should be halved and secondary education provided for free in a step by step process.
Hearings on Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has been tapped to head the Ministry of Justice, also focus on his past record. Hwang, 56, received 1.6 billion won ($1.4 million) over the 17 months he worked at a law firm after retiring from the prosecution in 2011.
Opposition lawmakers accused Hwang of engaging in the practice that is known in Korea as “respecting former officials,” where former high-ranking government officials who go on to work in the private sector receive a hefty salary in return for exercising influence over their former subordinates still on government payroll.
Hwang also came under attack for his exemption from mandatory military service. The skin disease for which Hwang earned his exemption also provided exemption to only four people over 11 years, according to military records provided by opposition lawmakers.
The justice ministry nominee in turn promised to reform the prosecution service to restore people’s trust.
“I will work hard to restore people’s trust (in the prosecution) by reforming the prosecution and justice ministry so that no exemptions are given to people regardless of the power they hold in society,” said Hwang.
By Shin Hyon-hee and Samuel Songhoon Lee