SOUTH KOREA
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Park Geun-Hye

Fresh blow to Park Geun-hye as South Korea PM nominee withdraws bid

Resignation of nominee for prime minister over controversial comments over Japan issues further damages her already battered political image

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 2:40am

President Park Geun-hye's waning political fortunes suffered another blow yesterday when her second nominee for prime minister was forced to withdraw over past 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," Moon Chang-keuk, 65, said.

"So today, I am giving up on my nomination for the prime ministership."

A political novice, the former journalist had been a surprise choice from the start, and his nomination swiftly became a political battleground because of past comments about Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.

Park has had problems with several of her key political appointments, and 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.

The prime minister's job fell open after incumbent Chung Hong-won resigned after savage public criticism of the government's response to the Sewol tragedy, which claimed about 300 lives, most of the victims schoolchildren.

Moon wasn't even Park's first choice. That was 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 prime minister's role is a largely symbolic one in South Korea, where all real power lies in the presidential Blue House.

However, it is the only cabinet post requiring parliamentary approval, and 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, Moon had described the repressive colonial period as "God's will" and in an editorial six years earlier he also said the terms of a 1965 peace treaty signed with Tokyo ruled out further compensation for South Korean women forced into Japanese military brothels.

Although Moon insisted his comments had been taken out of context, they triggered such a furore that even members of Park's ruling Saenuri Party began voicing doubts about his nomination.

For two weeks, Moon said he had no intention of stepping down, but the criticism showed no sign of abating and it appears that Park advised him to pull out.

In a statement issued by the presidential Blue House, Park said it was "extremely regrettable" that Moon had been judged in the court of public opinion without being able to properly defend himself.

In his press briefing yesterday, Moon voiced no regret over his past remarks, but acknowledged that his nomination had become a subject of "confrontation and division".

And there were flashes of anger as he denounced the parliamentarians who he felt had denied him the right to a confirmation hearing, saying they had been swayed by "biased and ever-shifting" public opinion.