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Yoon’s cabinet reshuffle signals no state overhaul intentions

Yoon’s cabinet reshuffle signals no state overhaul intentions

Posted December. 05, 2023 07:55,   

Updated December. 05, 2023 07:55


President Yoon Suk Yeol has announced a major reshuffle of six ministries, including the Ministry of Economy and Finance. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport; the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs; the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries; the Ministry of SMEs and Startups; and the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs have seen their ministers replaced. Choi Sang-mok, former senior secretary for economic affairs, has been named as the new finance minister and deputy prime minister. The four ministerial posts left by current and former lawmakers, including Choo Kyung-ho and Won Hee-ryong, are replaced by public officials, scholars, and experts. Notably, three of the six appointees are women.

The reshuffle was prompted partly by ministers planning to run in the 2024 general elections. As this marks the second edition of the Yoon administration, there were high expectations for a bold personnel change. However, the assessment indicates that the focus was on maintaining a stable cabinet through safe appointments. Following the reshuffle of the Yongsan Presidential Office staff, this cabinet also showed no inclination for a state overhaul.

President Yoon may be feeling the public's discontent stemming from his ruling party's disorder and the problematic reporting system exposed by the failed Busan Expo bid. Despite this, it is noted that he has been concentrating on ministerial risk management to improve his approval ratings, which are currently stuck in the mid-30s. Nevertheless, efforts are being made to sidestep criticism related to the ‘narrow talent pool’ concept captured in the neologism "Seo Onam" (men in their 50s from Seoul National University). Only one of the six nominees, Choi, graduated from Seoul National University, and Kang Do-hyung, the president of the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology and the ministerial nominee, was born in the 1970s.

The new cabinet, launched on Monday, faces formidable challenges. A tax revenue shortfall of 59 trillion won this year, along with tens of trillions of won projected for the next year, awaits the team. Additionally, they must grapple with an L-shaped domestic demand slump, expected to be followed by high interest rates and inflation. The nominee for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport will confront the daunting task of supplying 2.7 million housing units within the president's promised term. Furthermore, the complex challenge of reigniting the flames of pension, labor, and regulatory reform has become entangled in a web of competing interests. None of these issues are easy to solve, and many require legislative amendments in the National Assembly, making it challenging to find solutions without bipartisan cooperation.

The political color of the cabinet was lightened with yesterday's appointments. This is a change from three months ago, when Shin Won-sik, Yoo In-chon, and Kim Haeng were appointed as a confrontational trio ahead of the Gangseo-gu mayoral by-election. A second reshuffle, expected by the year's end, will likely include Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, who is considering running. Additionally, vacancies for the National Intelligence Service Director and the Korea Communications Commissioner will be addressed. The presidential directive stating that "ministers are there to fight" should be reconsidered for a more comprehensive responsibility for national affairs. Both the President's Office and the cabinet, reshuffled just last week, must collaborate with the National Assembly to yield effective results.

Kwan-Seok Jang jks@donga.com