Park defends her embattled civil affairs secretary

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Park defends her embattled civil affairs secretary

After the integrity of her administration was questioned by a series of corruption scandals involving high-ranking officials, President Park Geun-hye broke her silence Thursday and urged her aides to remain unshaken by political attacks.

Park made the controversial defense of her scandal-plagued civil affairs senior secretary at a National Security Council meeting held Thursday morning to discuss North Korea’s firing of three missiles this week. Pyongyang claimed the missile launches were simulations of attacks on the planned site of an advanced U.S. missile shield.

While mainly condemning the North’s provocations and defending her recent decision to allow the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system, Park made an ambiguous remark that was interpreted as a defense of Woo Byung-woo, the scandal-plagued senior secretary for civil affairs.

“I am also recently facing countless criticisms and resistances, and the country will become unstable if the president is shaken by this situation,” Park said. “I will fulfill my role as the supreme commander of the military under any circumstances for the sake of the country and the people, and I will do my best on missions that I have to do to defend the people.”

She urged her aides to “never try to avoid criticisms when you act for a just cause” and “treat hardships as your friends and squarely act according to your convictions.”

“Park made the remarks as she discussed the controversy surrounding Thaad,” a presidential aide told the JoongAng Ilbo, “but it appeared she was buttressing Woo, who is under pressures from politicians to resign.”

Throughout this week, Woo, who joined the Park Blue House in 2014 and was promoted to senior civil affairs secretary in February 2015, faced a barrage of accusations concerning himself and his family. A dubious real estate deal involving his wife, his career as a defense lawyer before joining the Blue House and his son’s treatment as a conscript police in the military were questioned.

He also faced criticism for having supported the promotion of Jin Kyung-joon, a senior prosecutor detained on charges of receiving massive bribes from the game developer Nexon. As the senior civil affairs secretary, Woo was in charge of the vetting process of top officials, and Jin was promoted to director of the Korea Immigration Service last year.

The connections between Woo, Jin and Nexon drew suspicions as Woo’s wife’s family estate was sold to Nexon in 2011. While Woo claims he has no relations with Nexon co-founder Kim Jung-ju, Woo and Jin are reportedly close acquaintances, having attended Seoul National University Law School together. Jin is also a close friend of Nexon’s Kim. Opposition parties howled for Woo’s resignation, while Woo insisted on his innocence and refused to step down. The Blue House said Tuesday that it was inappropriate for opposition parties to politically attack the administration while it is struggling to overcome security and economic challenges. Park’s remark on Thursday appeared to be the latest defense of Woo.

The call for Woo’s resignation, however, was echoed by the ruling Saenuri Party. “For someone who is supporting the president, being involved in various controversies is an enormous burden on the president,” Rep. Choung Byoung-gug of the Saenuri Party said in an interview with MBC Radio. “Even if he feels it is unreasonable, he must resign even before an investigation is concluded.”

Even Rep. Chung Woo-taik, a Park loyalist, said Woo must step down.

“In order to prove his innocence, various investigations including a probe by the prosecution are necessary. When Woo is holding onto his job, he can’t perform his duties properly, and there is a limit to his proving his innocence,” he said in an interview with PBC radio. “From this perspective, he must make a wise choice to prove his innocence.”

Rep. Park Jie-won, floor leader of the opposition People’s Party, said Thursday that Woo’s failure in vetting Jin alone is enough cause for his resignation. “Jin was the first incumbent director-level prosecutor to be detained, the most serious disgrace in the 68-year history of the prosecution,” Park said. “The justice minister and the prosecutor-general apologized for it, and someone must take responsibility. If President Park, who made the appointment, cannot take responsibility, then Woo, who failed to vet Jin, must step down.”

Since she took office in February 2013, Park appointed four civil affairs senior secretaries including Woo. The first three all left the post in disgrace. Kwak Sang-do, the first senior civil affairs secretary, stepped down in August 2013 after a series of botched appointments of minister nominees. A sex-for-influence scandal involving Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-eui was the final trigger.

Kwak’s successor Hong Kyung-shik was replaced after 10 months in June 2014 after two prime minister nominees dropped out of the confirmation process in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry’s sinking.

Woo’s predecessor Kim Young-han stepped down in January 2015 in defiance of a direct order given by the presidential chief of staff to answer questions by lawmakers at the National Assembly. The lawmakers planned to question him about allegations that a “secret inner circle” was running state affairs after a leaked Blue House document insinuated that policy decisions were being covertly influenced by Chung Yoon-hoi, an aide to Park before she became president.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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