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Yoon seeks rebound, taps 5-term lawmaker as chief of staff

President also names entrepreneur-turned-lawmaker as senior secretary for political affairs

By Jung Min-kyung, Son Ji-hyoung

Published : April 22, 2024 - 15:25

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President Yoon Suk Yeol introduces his new presidential chief of staff Chung Jin-suk, right, at the presidential office in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol introduces his new presidential chief of staff Chung Jin-suk, right, at the presidential office in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday named his new chief of staff and senior secretary for political affairs, which observers see as a bid for a breakthrough after the ruling party’s bitter defeat in the April 10 parliamentary elections.

It is also an apparent aim to counter snowballing criticism surrounding the lack of communication among the presidential office, the Cabinet and the National Assembly ahead of his planned meeting with the main opposition leader, observers added.

In a rare appointment announcement made by himself in the morning, Yoon named Rep. Chung Jin-suk, a five-term lawmaker of his ruling People Power Party and a political heavyweight viewed by some as mediator, as his new chief of staff.

“(Chung) is a five-term lawmaker who (was first elected in 2000) and had previously served as senior secretary for political affairs at the presidential office, an interim chair of (the Saenuri Party) and took on several roles at the National Assembly including deputy speaker and the secretary general,” Yoon told reporters in a briefing held at the presidential office in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul.

"He has smooth relations with people in the political sector, which is why I expect him to carry out his duties well through smooth communication with not only the staff at (the presidential office), but also with the Cabinet, both the ruling and opposition parties, the press and across the civic sector,” he added.

Yoon stressed that the latest nomination will work as a turning point for the presidential office’s communication with the public as well, saying that he will “step closer to the people by further convincing and communicating with them about the path (the administration) will take.”

After being introduced by Yoon, Chung pledged to “aid President Yoon to better communicate and lead a unified politics,” in his speech.

“I’m concerned about the current situation where the opposition has taken up the majority and the ruling party the minority at the Assembly, which is expected to cause further chaos (for the administration). I believed it was my responsibility to help out the Yoon administration and President Yoon Suk Yeol himself in these difficult times,” Chung explained.

With the position of the presidential chief of staff usually filled by career bureaucrats, Chung is one of the rare non-bureaucrats to be nominated for the role. Chung’s nomination could be seen as Yoon’s effort to defuse criticism for “poor communication” over his remaining three-year term in office and to adopt a "sense of rational decision-making" in the presidential office, an expert noted.

“Chung’s past roles as senior secretary for political affairs and the National Assembly’s deputy speaker are likely to bring a sense of rational decision-making to the presidential office. It is part of Yoon’s efforts to defuse criticisms that he has poor communication with the assembly and the people,” Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University said.

The 64-year-old politician will replace Lee Kwan-sup, who submitted his resignation on April 11, a day after the parliamentary election, to take responsibility for the ruling party’s defeat. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and most senior presidential secretaries have turned in their resignations alongside Lee for the same purpose.

The new chief of staff became known by some as a mediator after serving as senior secretary for political affairs under former President Lee Myung-bak from July 2010 to June 2011. He is known to have bridged the gap between two conservative former presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, who was the leader of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, a predecessor of the People Power Party, at the time.

Chung kicked off his career as a journalist for the local daily newspaper Hankook Ilbo, where he spent 15 years as a political reporter before entering politics in 2000.

In addition to nominating Chung, Yoon has named the founder of the famous roasted-chicken franchise, Goobne Chicken, and former ruling party lawmaker Hong Chul-ho as his new senior presidential secretary for political affairs. The two-term former lawmaker will replace Han Oh-seop and start preparing for Yoon's planned meeting with Democratic Party of Korea leader Lee Jae-myung, according to Yoon.

"Last Friday, I offered Chair Lee Jae-myung (to hold his first one-on-one meeting with me) in Yongsan and we must start discussions regarding the meeting. I've decided it was for the best to swiftly nominate a new senior secretary for political affairs to prepare for the meeting," Yoon told reporters in a separate afternoon briefing.

A scheduled meeting between Han, now-former senior secretary of political affairs and Democratic Party Rep. and Chief Secretary Cheon Jun-ho, at 3 p.m. Monday, was abruptly canceled due to the administration's latest personnel changes.

Regarding the ongoing process to name a new prime minister nominee to replace incumbent Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, Yoon said it "could take some time," unlike the two above replacements announced Monday.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Democratic Party denounced Chung's nomination as “very disappointing.”

“Chung is among those of the pro-Yoon faction who has made the People Power Party into a lap dog of the presidential office in Yongsan,” it said in a statement released through its spokesperson.

“Does Yoon not have anyone to nominate besides his closest aides?”

Yoon’s approval rate came to a record low of 32.3 percent as of last week, the lowest since he took office in October 2022, the latest Real Meter poll showed. The survey involved 2,509 respondents across the nation aged 18 or older.