Scandal-hit South Korean president picks new chief of staff

Han Gwang Ok, a former aide to late President Kim Dae Jung, was named chief of staff by South Korea's embattled President Park Geun Hye.
Han Gwang Ok, a former aide to late President Kim Dae Jung, was named chief of staff by South Korea's embattled President Park Geun Hye. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's embattled President Park Geun Hye picked a new chief of staff on Thursday (Nov 3) as part of a reshuffle of top aides aimed at quashing public discontent over a spiralling political scandal.

Mr Han Gwang Ok, a former aide to late President Kim Dae Jung, was named chief of staff, an appointment the presidential Blue House said would help get the rattled administration back on track.

The 74-year-old veteran politician, a long serving liberal who switched sides and joined Ms Park's administration in 2013, has dedicated his life to "democracy and national reconciliation".

"He is well suited to assist the president from the citizens' perspective," presidential spokesman Jung Youn Kuk said.

Ms Park is scrambling to deflect rising public anger over a scandal engulfing her administration in which her close friend Choi Soon Sil, who has been detained for questioning since Monday, is accused of influence peddling and meddling in state affairs.

In an effort to deflect some of the criticism, Ms Park had been urged to create a neutral cabinet by bringing in members from outside her ruling conservative Saenuri Party.

She has reached across the traditional political divide with a host of new appointments, including tapping a liberal politician as her new prime minister - a largely symbolic post.

But the opposition has dismissed the reshuffle as a smokescreen, calling for a full investigation of Ms Park's relationship with Ms Choi and vowing to block the new prime minister's nomination by wielding their combined parliamentary majority.

Suggestions that Ms Choi vetted presidential speeches and was given access to classified documents have exposed Ms Park to public anger and ridicule and, with just over a year left in office, seen her approval ratings plunge into the single digits.

Prosecutors have been questioning Ms Choi, who is being held in emergency detention, and have asked for a court warrant to arrest her on charges of fraud and abuse of power.

Ms Choi has denied allegations that she used her friendship with Ms Park to strongarm companies like Samsung into donating large sums to non-profit foundations that she then used for personal gains, Yonhap said.

The scandal comes as South Korea, Asia's fourth largest economy, faces slumping exports and high unemployment amid rising nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.