Moon Chang Keuk, a nominee for South Korea's Prime minister, bows during a news conference to withdraw his candidacy at a government complex in Seoul on June 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean President Park Geun Hye suffered a fresh embarrassing failure on Tuesday in her attempts to appoint a new prime minister, as her latest nominee withdrew over controversial remarks about Japanese colonial rule.
“I wanted to help President Park Geun Hye. But I believe that my resignation is the way to help her at this point,” Mr Moon Chang Keuk told a press conference.
“So today, I’m giving up my nomination for the prime minister,” he said.
A political novice, the 65-year-old former journalist had been a surprise choice from the start, and his nomination swiftly became a political battleground because of his past comments about what remains one of the most sensitive topics in modern Korean history.
Ms Park has had problems with a number of her key political appointments, and Mr Moon’s withdrawal is a further blow at a time when her popularity ratings are already at their lowest ebb following the Sewol ferry disaster in April.
Mr Moon wasn’t even her first choice. That was Mr Ahn Dai Hee, a former Supreme Court justice who was forced to withdraw his nomination last month following controversy over income he amassed after leaving the bench and going into private practice.
The premiership is a largely symbolic position in South Korea, where all real power lies in the presidential Blue House.
But it is the only cabinet post requiring parliamentary approval, and Mr Moon would have had to endure a rough confirmation hearing.
The controversy concerned remarks he made regarding two linked issues – Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula, and the Japanese military’s use of wartime sex slaves.
In a 2011 church lecture, Mr Moon had described the repressive colonial period as “God’s will” and in an editorial six years earlier said the terms of a 1965 treaty with Tokyo ruled out further compensation for South Korean women forced into Japanese military brothels.
Although Mr Moon insisted his comments had been taken out of context, they triggered such a furore that even members of Ms Park’s ruling Saenuri Party began voicing doubts about his nomination.
For two weeks, Mr Moon said he had no intention of stepping down, but the criticism showed no sign of abating and it appears that Ms Park herself finally advised him to pull out.
The prime minister’s job fell open after incumbent Mr Chung Hong Won resigned amid strident public criticism of the government’s response to the Sewol tragedy which claimed around 300 lives, mostly schoolchildren.