South Korea finally gets a new prime minister

Lee Wan Koo, a senior legislator from South Korean President Park Geun Hye's ruling Saenuri party, was approved as the country's new prime minister on Feb 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Lee Wan Koo, a senior legislator from South Korean President Park Geun Hye's ruling Saenuri party, was approved as the country's new prime minister on Feb 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean President Park Geun Hye finally got a new prime minister on her third attempt Monday, despite claims by opposition lawmakers that her nominee was morally unfit for the office.

Lee Wan Koo, a senior legislator from Park's ruling Saenuri party, was approved in parliament by 148 votes to 128 after a tortuous nomination process.

A largely symbolic post in South Korea where power is concentrated in the executive, the prime minister is the only cabinet member whose nomination requires parliamentary approval.

Outgoing premier Chung Hong Won had resigned way back in April last year amid strident public criticism of the government's response to the Sewol ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives.

President Park's popularity ratings also plunged in the wake of the Sewol tragedy and her political fortunes were not helped by several failed attempts to appoint Chung's successor.

Her first nominee, a retired Supreme Court justice, was forced to withdraw because of criticism over the large income he earned in private practice after leaving the bench.

The second, former journalist Moon Chang Keuk, withdrew over comments he made suggesting Japan's repressive colonial rule on the Korean peninsula was "God's will".

Apparently fearful of another nominee battle, a chastened Park was left with little choice but to retrospectively reject Chung's initial resignation.

Lee's nomination when it came was a similarly fraught process.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) had urged him to withdraw voluntarily, accusing him of speculating in real estate and of buying a high-class apartment with illegal political funds.

At his confirmation hearing, NPAD also disclosed a recording of Lee's conversation with reporters pressuring them to stop carrying negative reports about him.

A Gallup Korea survey in January found that Park's approval rating hit an all-time low of 29 percent, posing a growing threat to her drive to resuscitate the sluggish economy.