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News analysis

South Korea's Acting President only a caretaker amid chaos

Hwang will not be able to take key decisions, given the deep public distrust in Park administration

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn is acting as president while Ms Park Geun Hye awaits the Constitutional Court's decision on her impeachment, but analysts say he will lack political support to make major decisions in the interim.

Many wonder how effective Mr Hwang, whose premiership is largely a ceremonial one, will be in running the government, given public distrust of the Park administration.

Seoul National University law professor Lee Jae Min said that while the former prosecutor, 59, is well-respected among his peers, he is merely a caretaker who will not be able to make any key decisions.

"I hope the situation will return to normal, but I think chaos will continue because it is a question mark who will run the country over the next few months," he said.

Mr Hwang will most likely be a "passive Acting President", said Yonsei University political science professor Moon Chung In.

 Activists opposed to Ms Park cheering after the impeachment motion was passed by Parlia
A demonstrator on the roof of a tractor being detained by police officers during a protest outside the National Assembly building in Seoul yesterday. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

"He will be making decisions in consultation with Cabinet members. I don't think he has the guts to pursue any independent actions. Like all lawyers, he is cautious and prudent," he added.

Mr Hwang, a Park loyalist, was named Justice Minister after Ms Park took office in 2013. He became PM last year after predecessor Lee Wan Koo quit over graft allegations.

His elevation to Acting President yesterday followed the suspension of Ms Park's powers after the opposition bloc managed to garner enough votes in Parliament to impeach her. The nine-judge Constitutional Court has up to six months to decide whether or not to uphold the impeachment.

There is no law stating Mr Hwang's powers and limits as interim head of state, but analysts expect him to only oversee day-to-day operations, like then Prime Minister Goh Kun did after the late President Roh Moo Hyun was impeached in 2004.

In a national address last night, Mr Hwang pledged to heed the people's will and stabilise state affairs, which he will run "in a correct and transparent manner".

 Activists opposed to Ms Park cheering after the impeachment motion was passed by Parlia
Activists opposed to Ms Park cheering after the impeachment motion was passed by Parliament yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

He also said the government will "strive to maintain rock-solid security readiness" against North Korean provocations and actively respond to changes in the global environment, including a new administration under US President-elect Donald Trump, to "protect national interests".

He appealed for unity in the opposition-controlled Parliament, and promised that the government will do its best to stabilise markets and revitalise the economy.

 
 

But experts said it will be an uphill task for Mr Hwang as confidence in the Park administration has been shaken by the influence-peddling scandal involving Ms Park's close friend Choi Soon Sil. Ms Park, 64, is accused of allowing Choi to meddle in state affairs and of colluding with her to extort money from conglomerates. Choi has been indicted on charges including abuse of authority.

Prof Lee said of Mr Hwang's challenges: "Any acting president, if he comes from the current administration, will find it difficult to gain trust to move ahead with a lot of pending issues in Korea. That is why we need to have a new president as soon as possible."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline 'S. Korea's Acting President only a caretaker amid chaos'. Print Edition | Subscribe