| The National Assembly on Tuesday confirmed President Park Geun-hye`s nomination of Chung Hong-won as her first prime minister. Chung was nominated soon after the first nominee, Kim Yong-joon, dropped out of the running amid questions over his ethics. Controversy also surrounded Chung after he left public service as director of the Institute of Justice under the Supreme Prosecutor`s Office, and he has never served as minister or vice minister. Now that his nomination has been confirmed, he will face a real test of his capabilities.
Whether Chung will establish the role and status of a prime minister who oversees the Cabinet depends on how much power President Park gives him. Chung, however, should try to lead the Cabinet smoothly and make his voice heard clearly. In his parliamentary confirmation hearings, he pledged to "faithfully exercise" the prime minister`s constitutional right to recommend candidates for the State Council and propose their dismissal. He said he would exercise his right to propose expulsion of council members who are deemed incapable "based on the viewpoints and common sense of the public."
If he really means what he said, the first thing he should do is to propose the withdrawal of Kim Byung-kwan`s nomination as defense minister given numerous corruption allegations against Kim. Just days before her inauguration, President Park visited the Joint Chiefs of Staff headquarters with Kim accompanying her. Fears are growing, however, over whether Kim can lead the military despite so much damage to public trust in him. If the new prime minister speaks out at this juncture, he can lighten the political burden on the president`s shoulders in dismissing the defense minister nominee, let alone be credited for solidifying the prime minister`s authority.
Among government ministers, those who have closely assisted Park for a long time or those heading ministries that she attaches great importance to could wield more power than others. If the prime minister gets lost among powerful ministers, he will likely become invisible. When the National Assembly impeached President Roh Moo-hyun in March 2004, Prime Minister Goh Kun was acting president. Then Justice Minister Kang Kum-sil, one of the most powerful ministers under the Roh administration, said the prime minister should "passively" perform the role of acting president. Kang`s statement seemed to infringe on the constitutional authority of the acting president, allowing one to imagine how far a prime minister`s status can fall if he or she fails to establish the position`s roles.
Lee Soo-sung, who served as prime minister under the Kim Young-sam administration, said, "A prime minister should manage state affairs in harmony with the president. The prime minister should work with the resolve to quit at any time when he or she has different opinions with the president. If the prime minister acts honorably, State Council members will follow him or her."
Kim Hwang-sik, who left office Tuesday as the longest-serving prime minister since the introduction of direct presidential election system in 1987, took the job after the original nominee Kim Tae-ho failed to survive the confirmation process. Just as the former prime minister served for two years and five months due to his rigorous efforts and sociability, the hope is that Chung will also receive big applause from the public when he leaves his post.