May 12, 2017 6:00 am JST

South Korea's new president starts building his coalition

Moon's first test will be getting prime minister confirmed

SOTARO SUZUKI, Nikkei staff writer

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right. © AP

SEOUL -- Newly sworn-in South Korean President Moon Jae-in has begun wooing rival parties in an effort to gain a working majority in the legislature, hoping to ensure smooth confirmations of key nominees.

Im Jong-seok, Moon's new chief of staff, on Thursday visited the speaker and deputy speakers of the National Assembly, as well as officers of the People's Party, the Liberty Korea Party and the Bareun Party. He likely asked for their cooperation in confirming top administration officials.

Moon picked South Jeolla Gov. Lee Nak-yon as prime minister Wednesday. But Lee must be confirmed by a majority in the National Assembly, where Moon's Democratic Party of Korea holds less than half of the seats. Opposition parties could block the appointment if they join forces.

Cabinet nominees must also sit through confirmation hearings. Although the assembly cannot ultimately block them, tough questioning has stalled appointments in the past.

The opposition has raised few concerns over Lee so far. Chung Woo-taik, acting head of the Liberty Korea Party, said he will use the hearing to examine Lee's positions rather than vent over the presidential race.

Joo Seung-yong of the People's Party welcomed the pick. Both Joo and Lee hail from the Honam region, a People's Party stronghold, while Moon comes from a rival region. His choice for prime minister seems to be broadening his geographic appeal.

Moon is expected to also work with other parties on policy. The unemployment rate for South Koreans aged 15 to 29 hit a record high of 9.8% last year. The stark pay gap between permanent and temporary workers, and between employees of corporate giants and smaller businesses, is feeding frustration as well.

Inequality was a key topic of the election, with candidates across the political spectrum pledging to create jobs and nurture new industries. The Democrats and the People's Party in particular shared many goals, and Joo has expressed a willingness to work with the new administration to pass as many reforms as possible during an extraordinary National Assembly session next month.

But while everyone agrees that South Korea needs more jobs, Moon is focused on increasing employment in the public sector, while conservatives want rules that help keep the job market fluid.

The rift runs even deeper in national security. Such conservative parties as Liberty Korea are extremely wary of Moon's plans to pursue a dialogue with Pyongyang.

Suh Hoon, Moon's choice to head the National Intelligence Service, said Wednesday that a summit between North Korea and South Korea is necessary. Chung criticized the comment as inappropriate and claimed that many citizens are unhappy with the president's appointments.

Second-ranking Democratic official Woo Sang-ho pointed out Thursday that when Kim Dae-jung was the president, he could not get a prime minister confirmed for six months, resulting in political chaos. He urged party members to work with others to ensure that Lee's nomination makes it through the assembly.

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