President Lee Myung-bak
appointed the youngest prime minister in South Korea in 39 years Sunday in a
Cabinet reshuffle that retained a tough policy on North Korea.
minister-designate, Kim Tae-ho, who will turn 48 on 21 August, will lead a
cabinet filled with career bureaucrats and politicians in their 50s and 60s in
a society that values seniority. In what is a largely ceremonial No. 2 post,
the prime minister often presides over Cabinet meetings and heads the
government when the president is absent.
Mr. Kim, who served as a
popular governor of South Gyeongsang Province on the southern coast for two
consecutive terms until June, is little known outside his home province.
His meteoric entry into
national politics adds another potential candidate to the race to replace Mr.
Lee in a December 2012 election. (Under the Constitution, Mr. Lee cannot seek a
second term.) But the prime minister’s relatively thankless job has proved a
graveyard for presidential hopefuls.
No prime minister since
South Korea switched back to a presidential system in the early 1960s after a
brief experiment with a parliamentary system has ever won a presidential
election. After the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979, Prime
Minister Choi Kyu-ha became president by default but was quickly forced to
resign by a military junta led by Chun Doo-hwan.
On Sunday, seven other
cabinet ministers and two minister-level officials were replaced. But the
shake-up did not affect the foreign and defense ministers. The top economy
minister, Minister of Strategy and Finance Yoon Jeung-hyun, also retained his
Midway through his five-year
term, Mr. Lee has hinted at giving his government a new look since his ruling
Grand National Party suffered a defeat in local elections June 2.
Prime Minister-designate Kim
will help the government’s “communication with the young generation,” said Hong
Sang-pyo, Mr. Lee’s top spokesman.
The outgoing prime minister,
Chung Un-chan, had offered to resign last month, taking responsibility for Mr.
Lee’s failure to win parliamentary approval for a controversial plan for a new
town south of Seoul.
Once Mr. Kim’s appointment
is approved by Parliament, where Mr. Lee’s party maintains a comfortable
majority, Mr. Kim will become the country’s first prime minister in his 40s in
nearly four decades.
In Sunday’s reshuffle, Lee
Jae-oh, a ruling party power broker and one of Mr. Lee’s closest allies, became
“minister for special affairs,” a post that deals with political affairs and
can carry out special assignments related to North Korea.
By keeping his foreign
policy and national security team intact, Mr. Lee demonstrated that there would
be no immediate shift in his tough policy on North Korea.