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Moon reshuffles chief of staff and two senior secretaries

Jan 09,2019
From left: Noh Young-min, Kang Gi-jung, Yoon Do-han
President Moon Jae-in changed his chief of staff and two senior secretaries Tuesday afternoon in a major Blue House reshuffle that came amid dour economic prospects, two whistle-blowing scandals and record-low approval ratings.

Moon tapped Korean Ambassador to China Noh Young-min as his new chief of staff. Kang Gi-jung, who formerly served as a Democratic Party lawmaker, was named the new senior secretary for political affairs. Yoon Do-han, a former political commentator from broadcaster MBC, was picked as senior secretary for public communication.

Their jobs in the Blue House officially begin today.

Noh will replace Im Jong-seok and Kang will succeed Han Byung-do. Yoon will take over from Yoon Young-chan. The outgoing trio has yet to elaborate on their future plans, but Im is expected to run for a seat in the National Assembly in 2020.

In a press conference Tuesday, Im thanked the public for supporting him throughout the course of his tenure and asked them to keep rooting for Moon, who’s “expected to go through big ordeals and challenges” in 2019.

In explaining why Noh was chosen as his successor, Im praised Noh’s many years of experience in the National Assembly serving in various parliamentary posts and said Noh had an exceptional ability to communicate with figures in the industrial and economic fields. At a time when the Blue House is trying to build a strong foundation for its vision to create an “embracing nation,” Im continued, Noh is the perfect person to revitalize the economy. Noh said he had a lot of flaws and, because of that, he was afraid to serve as presidential chief of staff, but that he’d try to listen to what others have to say. Noh and Kang are known to have very close ties with Moon. Noh was Moon’s chief of staff in the 2012 presidential campaign, which he lost to Park Geun-hye.

According to multiple sources in the National Assembly and Blue House, Moon has long wanted Noh as chief of staff, apparently since he took office in May 2017 through a snap election after former President Park was impeached and removed for corruption and abuse of power.

Moon eventually chose another candidate after those who worked closely with him in the 2017 presidential campaign urged him to choose a “new face” in a show of reform. Moon eventually went with Im, a close aide of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who served as Seoul’s vice mayor for political and state affairs.

At the time Moon was mulling over who to pick for chief of staff, Noh won the backing of loyalists to President Roh Moo-hyun, who served from 2003 to 2008 before leaping to his death on May 23, 2009, during a corruption probe by the right-wing Lee Myung-bak administration. Moon sees Roh as his political mentor.

However, a source in the ruling Democratic Party said Moon eventually chose to hire a non-crony, Im, because he needed to justify his pledge to root out jeokpye, or “deep-rooted evils,” from Korean society.

Another reason why Moon chose Im, according to the Democratic Party source, was because Im wasn’t affiliated to any particular faction within the liberal party, though he had experience as a lawmaker, which would mean less of a power struggle between the ruling party and the Blue House.

But Im clashed with the ruling party on several issues behind the scenes. When Lee Hae-chan, a traditional Roh loyalist, was chosen chairman of the Democratic Party last August, Im’s job in the Blue House was threatened even more as Roh supporters insisted to the presidential office that Im be replaced by Korea’s ambassador to China, Noh.

A high-level Blue House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Moon needs solid backing from the Democratic Party this year to implement his policies and resuscitate his approval ratings, which now hover in the 40s. In that sense, tapping Noh as his new chief of staff made sense because Noh is supported by the party’s pro-Roh faction, the Blue House official continued.

Kang, the new senior secretary for political affairs, is also close to the president. When Moon was chairman of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the predecessor of the Democratic Party, in 2015, Kang served as head of the party’s policy committee, the main decision-making body.

A political source with knowledge of Blue House affairs said some people in the presidential office feared Im was cultivating his own power circle within the Blue House, which is why Moon started to shift more weight to Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon since the second half of 2018.

The outgoing political affairs and public affairs secretaries are known to have been close to Im.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) fumed over Moon’s decision to pick Noh as his new chief of staff, saying Moon disappointed the public with an “anachronism.” Rep. Yoon Young-seok, chief spokesman of the LKP, said Moon turned down the conservative party’s request to select a figure who had the guts to criticize the president’s policies. By choosing Noh, Yoon continued, Moon blew his chance to revive the domestic economy.

The LKP spokesman accused Noh of forcing people and organizations to buy his autobiography when he served as head of the parliamentary industry committee in 2015 and even installing a credit card machine in his office for sales. He said he used his authority to pressure public organizations that were monitored by the committee to buy his book.

Such book sales are common fund-raising tactics in Korean politics.

Rep. Na Kyung-won, LKP’s floor leader, said Moon was declaring war on the opposition party by not sacking Cho Kuk, presidential senior secretary for civil affairs, after a former Blue House special inspector claimed last month that was he was ordered to spy on private citizens. The whistle-blower didn’t point directly at Cho, but said top officials within Cho’s office, which overlooked the Blue House special inspection bureau, handed down instructions that fell out of his legal limits.

The minor right Bareunmirae Party chimed in, saying Moon’s decision to choose a traditionally close aide for his new chief of staff only went to show how “self-righteous” the president was.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, KANG TAE-HWA [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]


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