Confirmation of minister of SMEs is still not certain

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Confirmation of minister of SMEs is still not certain

The small business minister nominee pledged Friday to remove onerous regulations, protect small firms from technology extortion and turn them into growth dynamos, but attacks on past controversial remarks and personal financial dealings eclipsed his policy vision.

During a parliamentary confirmation hearing, Hong Jong-haak, a former economics professor and lawmaker, was grilled over his ethical and professional qualifications, which opposition lawmakers said are insufficient for leading the newly minted Ministry of SMEs and Startups.

The ruling Democratic Party pleaded for bipartisan cooperation in approving President Moon Jae-in’s last cabinet nominee, dismissing a flurry of accusations against him as “prejudice and misconceptions.”

Hong’s appointment does not require parliamentary approval, but disapproval could impose a political burden on the president and the nominee.

Opposition lawmakers zeroed in on his family’s inheritance of property from his mother-in-law, which may not be illegal but contradicts his long-held position against large transfers of wealth among relatives.

Hong has reported to the government that his family had a total of 4.95 billion won ($43.7 million) in assets in 2016, up from 2.17 billion won in 2012. These assets include those his teenage daughter inherited from her grandmother in 2015.

Critics have raised suspicions that Hong’s wife and daughter might have split his mother-in-law’s property in order to pay less gift tax.

Hong showed signs of regret, saying he still believes that “excessive” transfers of wealth among family members and relatives impede the development of a market economy. But he added that his mother-in-law made all the decisions on the inheritance and that he couldn’t reject them.

“I have been humbly reflecting on this,” he said. “I have been enthusiastically working to address structural problems in our society, but I think I have hurt [the feelings of] many people.”

Hong was also denounced for comments in a 1998 book that described those who did not graduate from top-tier universities as people “without fundamental knowledge.” He apologized for it.

“Whatever the process [of including the comments in the book] was, I would like to take this opportunity to say I am sorry to those who might have been offended by anything I wrote that was incorrect,” he said.

Despite a flurry of criticism, Hong said he had no intention of giving up his nomination.

“I have lived my entire life for small enterprises, small merchants and the self-employed, and I believe I have to contribute to supporting them,” he said. “I will try hard to address the suspicion surrounding me.”

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