January 8, 2019 / 7:09 AM / 3 months ago

South Korea's Moon replaces top aide amid falling ratings, scandal

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in replaced his chief of staff, who played a major role in improving ties with North Korea, with a longtime confidant on Tuesday as part of a shake-up aimed at raising approval ratings amid economic woes and a spy scandal.

South Korean Ambassador to China Noh Young-min arrives at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, January 8, 2019. Yonhap via REUTERS

Moon replaced Im Jong-seok with Noh Young-min, a former politician who has been serving as ambassador to China since October 2017, as the top presidential secretary, the presidential office said.

Yoon Do-han, a former journalist, was made press secretary, while former lawmaker Kang Gi-jung will be the senior secretary for political affairs, the office, known as the Blue House, said.

Noh and Kang worked on Moon’s presidential campaign in the run-up to the 2017 snap election.

The three posts do not require confirmation hearings.

“The Moon administration may not be good enough to satisfy the people’s expectations, but the president’s determination has never wavered over the past 20 months,” Im told reporters.

“There will be even bigger hardships and challenges internally and outside, but please support him so he can win through with the people.”

The reshuffle is seen aimed at revitalising momentum for an administration facing faltering approval ratings and the spying scandal, which have both eroded Moon’s popularity and undermined his reform drive.

The Blue House has been grappling with allegations that it has spied on political foes and officials from previous administrations while interfering in personnel management at private businesses.

The scandal was triggered by a former investigator on an anti-corruption team set up by Moon after a corruption scandal led to the impeachment and ouster of his predecessor.

FALLING RATINGS

Moon’s office says the spying accusations are groundless but it sacked all of the anti-corruption team members, citing wrongdoing including being treated by businessmen to rounds of golf in breach of the law.

Moon’s dismissal of opposition demands that he sack Im and a senior secretary overseeing the team, had led in November to a parliamentary boycott.

Moon’s pick of Noh, who served three terms in parliament, was seen aimed at improving relations with the parliamentary opposition, who are also refusing to ratify an agreement made at a historic inter-Korean summit in April.

Among Moon’s key tasks this year is boosting the economy and a sluggish job market and hosting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on an unprecedented trip to Seoul.

Kim’s visit was planned last year but delayed amid stalled nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States, which South Korea has been trying to encourage.

U.S. President Donald Trump has raised the possibility of a second summit with Kim, some time this year.

Moon’s approval ratings have dropped to their lowest since he took office in May 2017 on the back of frustration over economic policies and lacklustre progress on North Korea’s denuclearisation.

FILE PHOTO - South Korea's Moon Jae-in attends the ASEAN-ROK Summit in Singapore November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, but relations have warmed significantly since the North sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics in the South last year.

Im, a former student democracy activist who served a three-and-a-half year prison term for orchestrating an unauthorised 1989 visit by a fellow campaigner to North Korea, played a pivotal role in the detente between the two Koreas.

The Blue House did not announce Im’s next posting, but he was widely expected to seek a return to politics through next year’s parliamentary election.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel

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