September 14, 2023
SEOUL – South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol initiated a significant cabinet reshuffle Wednesday, appointing new defense, culture and gender equality ministers in a bid to rejuvenate his administration’s momentum.
Yoon named Rep. Shin Won-sik of the ruling People Power Party as the defense minister, reappointed former Culture Minister Yu In-chon under the former Lee Myung-bak to the same role, and selected Kim Haeng, a spokesperson for the former Park Geun-hye administration as the gender equality minister.
This marks the first occasion Yoon has replaced three ministers simultaneously, following the appointment of a unification minister in June and an industry minister in August. The three will have to undergo parliamentary hearings.
Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Dae-gi said at a press briefing on Wednesday afternoon, “Nominee Shin is someone with extensive experience in defense policy, (who) will solidly build security capabilities against nuclear and missile threats, and is judged to be the best person for Defense Innovation 4.0.”
Shin previously served as a policy planning officer at the Defense Ministry, as commander of the Capital Defense Command, and as chief of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is an incumbent member of the National Assembly who was elected through proportional representation in the last general election.
At the briefing, Shin vowed to do his best to ensure that citizens can live comfortably amid serious security challenges. “I will do my best to create a soldier worthy of a soldier and an army worthy of an army.”
Shin is slated to succeed Lee Jong-sup, who indicated his intention to resign on Tuesday. Lee has faced increasing pressure from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea to undergo impeachment proceedings amidst allegations of external interference in the investigation surrounding the death of Lance Cpl. Chae Su-geun, who died after being swept away by a swift current in July.
The Democratic Party has initiated discussions on Lee’s impeachment, alleging that the minister unlawfully impeded the investigation into Chae’s death. Recent news reports suggest that Lee began considering resigning shortly after the opposition party disclosed plans to launch impeachment proceedings against him. As per the National Assembly Act, a minister facing impeachment cannot resign or be dismissed once the bill passes the National Assembly until the Constitutional Court delivers the outcome of the impeachment trial, a process which potentially creates a “defense vacuum.”
Yoon also nominated former actor and ex-culture minister Yu as the new culture minister.
The 72-year-old nominee began his acting career in 1973 and gained popularity after portraying a character based on “Korea’s youngest CEO” — Lee Myung-bak, who would later become president — in the popular drama series “Years of Ambition” (1990). In July, he was appointed as presidential adviser for cultural affairs and sports in Yoon’s office.
“I can say that I have been in the field my whole life. All the answers are in the field,” Yu said at the briefing. “The field is changing rapidly these days and we will prepare policies and support methods to better adapt to the changes.”
The incumbent Minister Park Bo-gyoon, who assumed office last May, has been under speculation for replacement since the end of last year, reportedly due to a perceived failure to address pressing issues such as “fake news” and “left-biased public broadcasting,” areas which Yoon has highlighted as priorities.
Yu has had a thorny relationship with the press during his tenure. His confrontational approach was highlighted when he was caught on video berating reporters at a National Assembly audit. A clip that shows Yu swearing at reporters with phrases like “Don’t take pictures,” and “I’ve really lost my temper,” later made rounds on the internet.
Together with Lee Dong-kwan, who assumed the role of chairman of the Korea Communications Commission last month and previously served as press secretary during the Lee Myung-bak administration, Yu is set to steer the incumbent government’s media policies.
The KCC chairman has already announced plans to eradicate fake news by “enhancing” the regulatory framework that governs online media, especially in areas currently lacking oversight. The commission plans to adopt a “one strike, you’re out system” that could penalize media outlets that deliberately disseminate fake news through broadcasting and communication networks.
On Tuesday, Yoon green-lighted the dismissal of Kim Eui-cheol, the president of the national broadcaster KBS, after a board’s vote held him responsible for poor financial management of the TV station and for losing leadership over the organization. Yoon’s approval on the board’s vote removes Kim, who was appointed in December 2021 during the tenure of former President Moon Jae-in, even though he has more than a year remaining in office.
Kim Haeng, meanwhile, was nominated to replace Kim Hyun-sook, who was mired in controversy over a lack of preparation by the government for the World Scout Jamboree held in Saemangeum, North Jeolla Province. Though abolishing the ministry was the president’s campaign pledge, the nominee said she would continue its role of supporting people to build healthy families until its fate ends. The opposition party has been resisting Yoon’s attempt to disband the ministry.
While Yoon’s ministerial replacements are intended to inject fresh momentum into his administration, emerging concerns indicate that the reshuffle may resurrect negative perceptions and old controversies, particularly given the inclusion of numerous figures from the previous Lee Myung-bak administration, who are not considered to be fresh faces in the political landscape.
“This is a complete regression of government personnel. They are all individuals who have previously caused trouble and made extremely biased remarks and actions,” said Rep. Min Hyung-bae of the Democratic Party during a local radio interview on Wednesday.
“The government is not operating for the benefit of the country or its citizens, but rather is attempting to privatize state power and appoint individuals who serve its own group’s interests,” he said.
Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, a former lawmaker from the People Power Party, expressed concern that the appointment of Rep. Shin as the defense minister could potentially compromise political neutrality.
“During the tenure of President MB (Lee Myung-bak), one steadfast principle regarding personnel was to avoid appointing individuals affiliated with political parties to the roles of Defense Minister and Justice Minister,” Mayor Hong said on his social media platform on Tuesday.
“The rationale being, when a political party member assumes either of these positions, which necessitate neutrality, the risk of undermining political impartiality escalates, especially in the face of attacks from the opposing party.”
When asked by a reporter about Yoon’s decision to appoint individuals from the former Lee Myung-bak administration, a senior official from the presidential office, speaking on condition of anonymity, emphasized that their selection was primarily based on their ability to fulfill their historical mandate with professionalism and responsibility rather than past government service.