Speculation swirls around reshuffle

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Speculation swirls around reshuffle

After the governing and opposition parties reached an agreement to push back to Monday a plenary session to vote on whether to confirm Lee Wan-koo’s prime ministerial nomination, speculation has moved to when a much-awaited Blue House shuffle may take place.

Some have surmised that it may take place as early as Tuesday.

After the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Thursday that Kwon Young-se, the Korean ambassador to China, would be replaced “soon,” some analysts forecast that he would either be named President Park Geun-hye’s new chief of staff to replace Kim Ki-choon or as the new minister of unification.

The prospect that the government may administer a reshuffle came after President Park hinted at it during her New Year press conference on Jan. 12.

“I will consider [reshuffling] posts that are really necessary, like the minister of oceans and fisheries,” she said.

Up to three additional ministerial posts - including for the Ministry of Unification, as well as the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport - are being considered, according to government sources.

And within the Blue House, a group of incumbent and former lawmakers are already slated to join a newly established presidential advisory team for political affairs.

But when questioned by a Blue House correspondent about letting go of Chief of Staff Kim, the president was ambiguous, saying that the issue is to be dealt with after patching up several pending issues.

Over the past year, the 75-year-old loyalist has been dogged by rumors that he would either voluntarily retire or be let go.

“The chief of staff has no personal greed whatsoever, a rarity, and he has been supporting me despite some personal challenges,” the president said.

As a close confidante to the president’s father, former President Park Chung Hee, Kim has been criticized as something of an evil mastermind behind President Park’s key decisions. But whether she will let him go this time remains unclear, particularly given her heavy reliance on him.

Some signs signal that Kim may have already started setting his affairs in order. A few politicians have said they recently received phone calls from the chief of staff - a rare occurrence - while others have said his work cell phone number no longer exists.

Ambassador Kwon and Kim come from similar backgrounds. The former three-term lawmaker began his career as a prosecutor and joined politics in 2002. He has been serving as the ambassador to China since May 2013 and is widely recognized as belonging to the pro-Park faction within the ruling Saenuri Party.

After being defeated in the 2012 general election, he made major contributions as one of President Park’s campaign leaders. He was named ambassador to China while preparing once again to challenge in the April 2016 legislative election.

The Blue House appears ready to complete its reshuffle ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday on Wednesday. Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook told reporters on Thursday that the Blue House has set a new policy that the new prime minister will have the authority to recommend candidates, indicating that a reshuffle would likely follow Lee’s appointment.

“There is no reason to postpone a reshuffle as far as the confirmation vote is completed,” said another Blue House official. “The reshuffle will be very quick.”

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

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