June 13, 2014 2:42 am JST

Park's PM pick feels heat for calling Japanese rule 'God's will'

KOICHI KATO, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye's choice for prime minister has triggered a backlash, with critics seizing on comments by the former journalist that appear to justify Japanese colonial rule.

     Opposition lawmakers and others are calling on Park to withdraw her nomination of Moon Chang-keuk, a former editor-in-chief of the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. Just last month, her previous nominee for the vacant post withdrew amid a controversy over his earnings as a private lawyer.

     A number of Moon's comments have been dredged up and thrown back at him. In one, taken from a speech at a church in 2011, he called the Korean Peninsula's colonization by Japan in the early 20th century "God's will." Television and newspaper reports Thursday were largely critical of the comments.

     In a statement issued through the prime minister's office, Moon acknowledged that the speech was somewhat disconnected from the sentiment of ordinary Koreans. The Yonhap News Agency reported that Moon's camp had accused some media outlets of distorting his comments and threatened legal action.

     The backlash is growing ahead of confirmation hearings in the National Assembly. Ahn Cheol-soo, co-chair of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, spoke out against the nomination, telling Park "not to cause any more heartache for the public." Even some members of the president's ruling party have said Moon should withdraw.

     In May, then-Prime Minister Chung Hong-won announced his resignation over the government's roundly criticized response to a deadly ferry disaster. Park's first choice for a successor, former Supreme Court Justice Ahn Dai-hee, bowed out. A second withdrawal would deal a body blow to Park's leadership.

     Separately, Park replaced four presidential secretaries Thursday. She picked Cho Yoon-sun, minister of gender equality and family, as senior secretary for political affairs and An Chong-bum, a lawmaker in the ruling Saenuri Party, as senior secretary for economic affairs. Both are regarded as close allies of the president. But her decision to retain embattled chief of staff Kim Ki-choon suggests that Park sees a strong president's office as essential to weathering the political headwinds.

     Park is expected to announce a cabinet reshuffling before leaving on a trip to Central Asia on Monday. She was supposed to present her new lineup of ministers Thursday but was sidetracked by the Moon controversy, some say.