After two failed attempts to appoint a new prime minister, South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced on Thursday her “agonised” decision to retain the incumbent who had resigned over April’s ferry disaster.
In an effort to assuage criticism of the government’s emergency response, Chung Hong-won had resigned just 10 days after the Sewol passenger ferry sank on April 16 with the loss of 300 lives.
Park accepted his resignation, but Chun was asked to remain in the job until a successor was found – a task that turned into an embarrassing debacle for the president.
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 on Tuesday over comments he made suggesting Japan’s repressive colonial rule on the Korean peninsula was “God’s will”.
The two climbdowns were a fresh blow to Park, whose popularity ratings – in the wake of the ferry disaster – are already at their lowest level since she took office 16 months ago.
Apparently fearful of another nominee battle, Park was left with little choice but to retrospectively reject Chung’s initial resignation.
Presidential Blue House spokesman Yoon Doo-hyun said the decision arose from the need to break an administrative paralysis caused by the lack of a prime minister.
“The many problems exposed during the screening process [for prime ministerial candidates] created a big void in the administrative process and a big division in public opinion,” Yoon said.
“Such problems can’t be left unresolved for too long so [Park] made the agonised decision to reject Chung’s resignation,” he added.
The premiership is a largely symbolic position in South Korea, where all real power lies in the presidential Blue House.
It is the only cabinet post requiring parliamentary approval, which allows the opposition to provide a rough confirmation hearing if it so chooses.
It was not immediately clear how long Chung would remain in the post.
Chung voiced “regret” at all the confusion and vowed to devote his time in office to promoting reforms aimed at improving the country’s public safety system.
“I will do my best ... to make a safer country, reform official institutions, eradicate corruption and normalise abnormal practices,” Chung said.
The investigation into the Sewol disaster has uncovered evidence of corporate greed, official incompetence and unhealthy – sometimes criminal – collusion between state regulators and the businesses they monitor.
Anti-government sentiment ran very high in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and when Chung visited relatives of the victims they threw water at him and pushed him around.
His resignation back in April did little to calm the heated atmosphere and Park was eventually obliged to make a personal, tearful apology on television, during which she accepted responsibility for her administration’s mishandling of the disaster.