Regional bias a concern in government reshuffle

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Regional bias a concern in government reshuffle

Park Geun-hye’s political stronghold is Daegu, North Gyeongsang, where the president was born and from which she has gained vital support as a lawmaker.

As a presidential candidate in 2012, she promised to be fair in appointing key government officials, particularly considering Korea’s custom of giving preference to those from the same school and hometown.

However, after less than two years in office, Korea’s legislative, judicial and administrative authorities appear set to be dominated by officials from the Gyeongsang region.

Out of the top 10 highest positions in the Korean government, six come from Gyeongsang province. The number will soon grow to eight: Ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker Chung Ui-hwa, was elected Friday as the National Assembly speaker, a No. 2 post; and Ahn Dae-hee’s nomination for prime minister will be approved at confirmation hearings early next month.

The prime ministerial post is the country’s fifth-highest position. Ahn is from Haman, in South Gyeongsang, and Chung’s constituency is Busan, which was historically part of South Gyeongsang although it is now administered separately.

Yang Sung-tae, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Korea, and Park Han-chul, president of the Constitutional Court of Korea, who hold the third and fourth-highest positions, respectively, are both from Busan.

Ahn Cheol-soo, the co-chairman of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), was also born in Busan, though his post is not hinged on a Blue House decision.

Lee In-bok, head of the National Election Commission, the sixth-highest post, comes from Nonsan, South Chungcheong - one of just two positions in which the incumbents are not from the traditional Park stronghold. The other post, that for chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party, is currently vacant. Its former hold, Hwang Woo-yea, recently completed his term, and the election for a new party leader will be held July 14.

The main opposition has long pinpointed the president’s chief of staff and her closest aide Kim Ki-choon as the culprit behind the concentration of the traditional “PK faction” within the ruling party.

The acronym refers to Pusan and the adjacent South Gyeongsang Province. Before 2000, Busan was romanized as Pusan, while South Gyeongsang Province was known as Kyongsang Namdo. The faction had its political heyday under former President Kim Young-sam, from 1993 to 1998. President Park, who was born in Daegu in 1952, was elected to the National Assembly from Dalseong County four times.

Ever since she seated Kim, a former prosecutor-general and justice minister, in August of last year, this phenomenon accelerated, the opposition contested.

“Ahn, the nominee for prime minister, is Kim Ki-choon’s junior at the prosecution by 16 years, and they come from the same hometown of Busan,” said Park Beom-kye, a floor spokesman with the NPAD.

“Didn’t President Park pledge many times before that she would hire a figure from Jeolla province as prime minister to ease the problems with regional conflicts?” said the NPAD’s Park Jie-won, who served as chief of staff under the Kim Dae-jung administration. “If she truly wishes to overhaul the national system in the wake of the Sewol ferry disaster, she should have paid attention to fair allocation by the origins of key officials.”

He also criticized the Blue House for hiring three former prosecutor-generals for chief of staff, prime minister and secretary for civil affairs - all key posts.

However, the presidential office maintains that PK-centered personnel assignments are purely “accidental.”

“We ended up picking those [from PK] while looking for appropriate figures,” said a Blue House official. “But we didn’t have a specific region in mind during the search.”

Still, the prevalence of those from the PK faction in top positions has presented itself as a burden for the Blue House.

“Koreans have high expectations for the administration’s distribution of hometowns within high posts,” said Park Myung-ho, a professor of politics and diplomacy at Dongguk University. “The Blue House will have to keep that in mind when proceeding with its reshuffle of the cabinet and presidential secretaries in the near future.”

BY SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]



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