The Korea Herald


Speculation grows over Yoon's looming Cabinet shakeup

In rare move, president sacks entire spy agency leadership amid allegations of internal feud

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Nov. 27, 2023 - 15:55

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President Yoon Suk Yeol (right, front) attends a meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology in his office in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol (right, front) attends a meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology in his office in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

Speculation is growing over how the reshuffle of President Yoon Suk Yeol's Cabinet will play out with less than five months left before the parliamentary elections, widely seen as a litmus test of public support for the conservative leader.

More than half of the 19 members of the Cabinet are likely to be replaced over the course of the next month, according to ruling party sources cited by media reports Monday.

The Cabinet reshuffle will be carried out along with a presidential office shake-up, according to news reports. However, Yoon's office has yet to confirm the shake-up or its time frame as of Monday.

Some outgoing Cabinet members are rumored to be aiming for candidacy in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Those holding a seat in the government must resign by Jan. 11 in order to be eligible for candidacy to become a lawmaker.

One of them is Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Choo Kyung-ho, who is rumored to be replaced by Choi Sang-mok, senior presidential secretary for economic affairs.

Choo, a two-term lawmaker before assuming a role in the Cabinet, said during a visit to his home turf of Dalseong-gun, Daegu for vacation in August that he "may return to Dalseong-gun by the end of this year."

Land Minister Won Hee-ryong, another strong candidate for the election, will likely be replaced by Sim Gyo-eon, president of the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements and former real estate professor at Konkuk University, according to local reports quoting political observers and insiders. Sim advised Yoon's deregulatory real estate policies during his presidential election campaign, they said.

Foreign Minister Park Jin is rumored to be replaced by either Lee Chung-min, senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies; or Lee Shin-hwa, ambassador-at-large on North Korean Human Rights.

Second Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Oh Yeong-ju is a likely nominee for Gender Equality Minister. The incumbent minister, Kim Hyun-sook, has been under fire for her botched management of the World Scout Jamboree event held in August in Saemangeum, North Jeolla Province. However, Kim has remained in the position as nominee Kim Haeng dropped out in October during a parliamentary confirmation hearing.

Also rumored to be replaced ahead of the election deadline are Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, Veterans Minister Park Min-shik, SMEs and Startups Minister Lee Young, Agriculture Minister Chung Hwang-keun, Labor Minister Lee Jung-sik and Oceans Minister Cho Seung-hwan.

The Ministries of Unification, Defense, Culture and Industry are likely exceptions, as minor reshuffles took place in July and in October in these positions.

Meanwhile, also on the agenda is a presidential office reshuffle with some incumbent senior secretaries likely taking part in the election, as well as a reorganization to increase the number of presidential senior secretaries up to eight. Currently, Yoon's office has six senior secretaries, dedicated to political affairs, civil society, public relations, economic affairs, social affairs and state affairs coordination.

Yoon earlier in November reportedly ordered his aides to prioritize women born between 1970 and 1979 to fill in the positions, saying the presidential office and the Cabinet are in pursuit of diversity.

This comes as Yoon kicked off an aggressive reshuffle on Sunday by accepting the resignations of the head of the National Intelligence Service and its two deputies, hours after he returned to Seoul from his state visit to the United Kingdom and his trip to France.

But Sunday's rare decision appears to deviate from the looming reshuffle in the Cabinet and the presidential office, as news reports attributed the decision to unrelenting internal conflicts in previous personnel reshuffles at the national spy agency.

Media reports point to a power play between former NIS chief Kim Kyou-hyun and former first deputy director Kwon Chun-taek, a career intelligence agent.

Yoon reportedly ordered his aides to prepare the NIS leadership reshuffle plan before his trip to Europe, amid persistent North Korean provocations, including a spy satellite launch and the de facto annulment of a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement.

Yoon's approval rating improved for two consecutive weeks to 38.1 percent, according to a poll by Realmeter on Monday. In the past week, Yoon's rating climbed by 2.5 percentage points from a week prior.