Moon appoints Hong despite ethical lapses

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Moon appoints Hong despite ethical lapses


President Moon Jae-in presides over a cabinet meeting with all 19 cabinet members in the Blue House on Tuesday after appointing Hong Jong-haak as head of the Ministry of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises and Startups. It took 195 days for him to complete his cabinet lineup. [YONHAP]

President Moon Jae-in appointed Hong Jong-haak as chief of the newly founded Ministry of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises and Startups Tuesday, sidestepping vehement backlash from the opposition bloc over the minister’s ethical lapses.

It was the last piece of Moon’s 19-member cabinet, finalized 195 days after the president took office in May through a snap election, the longest period for any administration to date.

This past Monday was the final deadline for the National Assembly to approve Hong. The Assembly was initially asked by the Blue House to endorse Hong six days earlier on Nov. 14, but did not due to a backlash from opposition parties who took issue with Hong’s past controversial remarks and personal financial dealings.

Under domestic law, confirmation from the National Assembly is not required in order for a president to formally appoint his or her minister. But Moon’s decision to push ahead with Hong comes with high risks in Korea’s current political landscape, where the ruling Democratic Party controls only 121 seats in the 299-member chamber, and cooperation with opposition parties is essential for budget passage, which requires a majority vote.

Four other ministerial officials were sworn in without parliamentary confirmation in the Moon administration, including Kang Kyung-wha, minister of foreign affairs; Song Young-moo, minister of defense; Kim Sang-jo, chairperson of the Fair Trade Commission; and Lee Hyo-sung, chairman of the Korea Communications Commission.

“I have great expectations for Minister Hong Jong-haak because he devised overall economic policies for my campaign team, especially those for small and medium-sized companies,” Moon said after appointing Hong on Tuesday. “You’ve mentally suffered a lot. Do well.”

Moon continued, “Things just don’t go as we plan ... The opposition parties were really against [my decision to tap Hong]. But I hope they understand it was really urgent for the new administration to finalize [the cabinet], and that the Ministry of SMEs and Startups had a busy road ahead.”

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) showed no signs of concession.

Hong’s appointment will be remembered in Korea’s political history as “the Moon Jae-in administration’s No. 1 lie to seek cooperative politics through the politics of obstinacy,” said Rep. Chung Woo-taik, LKP floor leader. “We shall make it clear that whatever political problem arises from here on out, President Moon has full responsibility for it.”

Rep. Kim Dong-cheol, floor leader of the minor opposition People’s Party, said Moon had “brazenly given up on cooperative politics” by appointing a man who had been determined unfit for the post by the National Assembly, adding that Moon “neglected” the legislature and the general public’s opinion.

“When a conservative administration pushed through an appointment blocked by the National Assembly, didn’t the Democratic Party pounce on the decision?” asked Kim. “Now that they’ve become the ruling party, Democratic Party lawmakers are keeping silent.”

Kim urged Hong to step down on his own and the Democratic Party to ask Moon to rescind his appointment.

Hong, a long-time critic of family-run conglomerates and their habits of transferring expensive assets among family members, was grilled by opposition lawmakers, who claimed his wife and daughter split his mother-in-law’s property to pay less gift tax.

Hong explained he could not reject his mother-in-law’s decisions.

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