South Korean President Park Geun Hye has nominated a new and possibly more powerful prime minister in a bid to assuage growing public anger and stem calls for her resignation over a snowballing scandal involving a close friend.
Prosecutors yesterday asked the Seoul Central District Court to issue a warrant to formally arrest Ms Choi Soon Sil, 60, who is accused of using her friendship with Ms Park to meddle in state affairs and raise funds for her own gain. The decision will be made at a court hearing today.
Analysts said Ms Park's unilateral decision to appoint a new prime minister could backfire as it has sparked outrage among opposition leaders. They threatened to boycott parliamentary hearings required by law to endorse the nominee - university professor Kim Byong Joon, who was a key aide to the late liberal president Roh Moo Hyun.
Majority support needed is lacking as the opposition holds 165 out of 300 seats in Parliament.
The prime ministerial position is traditionally ceremonial with limited responsibilities. But analysts predict Ms Park would delegate most of her power over domestic affairs to the new premier, who is expected to lead a more neutral Cabinet as demanded by the opposition.
Uncertainty over trilateral summit
TOKYO • The political scandal engulfing South Korea's President Park Geun Hye may derail a planned trilateral summit involving South Korea, Japan and China.
The scandal's impact on South Korean diplomacy was discussed during a Cabinet meeting last Saturday, reported South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
The summit is supposed to take place some time early next month, but the Park administration has not yet been able to reply if she can attend. The Asahi Shimbun, citing diplomatic sources, reported yesterday that China too has not replied.
Japan's Jiji Press reported that the scandal is raising concerns within the Japanese government that the summit may not be able to take place this year. Tokyo holds the chairmanship of the three-way framework this year. The trip, if it happens, will be Ms Park's first to Japan since she took office in February 2013.
"She may be unable to leave her country if she faces impeachment," said a Japanese government source.
Jiji Press reported yesterday that concerns are growing in Japan that her administration is fast becoming a lame-duck government and this would affect bilateral deals such as a landmark agreement to resolve the "comfort women" issue.
Ms Park, whose approval rating plunged below 10 per cent in the aftermath of the scandal, may retain control over foreign policies and national security issues until the end of her five-year term in 2018, said political science professor Kim Jae Chun from Sogang University.
"The damage is done, the bomb has exploded, now she's trying to pick up the pieces. But regrouping the Cabinet and appointing a new prime minister also means she's not willing to step down and wants to remain in power."
That Ms Park made the decision without consulting either her ruling Saenuri party or major opposition parties has left many political leaders fuming. Some accused the President of trying to divert attention from the investigations involving Ms Choi. The daughter of a cult figure was detained by the prosecution and has been questioned since Monday on at least 10 charges, including embezzlement and influence peddling.
Ms Park had apologised last week for allowing her friend to edit some of her speeches. However, public anger has been growing, with many critics calling for Ms Park to resign and for a neutral, bipartisan Cabinet to be set up in the interim.
Korea University's political science professor Lee Nae Young said Professor Kim Byong Joon will make a good leader for the new Cabinet as he is seen as a neutral party.
If appointed, he will be the fourth prime minister to serve the Park administration, taking over from incumbent Hwang Kyo Ahn.
Prof Lee, who knows Prof Kim personally, described him as a sincere person and a non-partisan academic who is critical of both the ruling and opposition parties.
"But the fact that he was chosen by President Park undermines his neutrality," he said. "The new prime minister may have a difficult time trying to recruit other Cabinet members and overcoming deepened public anger."
In a brief meeting with journalists yesterday, Prof Kim said he was offered the job a week ago but did not want to comment on his expected role. He is expected to give more details today.
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