President Park Geun-hye on Thursday asked Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, who had tendered his resignation following the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April, to stay in his job. The decision follows two consecutive failures to come up with a suitable replacement.
Presidential spokesman Yoon Doo-hyun said the president could not tolerate a vacuum in government and split pubic opinion and so, "after much consideration," decided to retain Chung.
Chung shortly after Cheong Wa Dae's announcement said, "I had declined the offer but decided to take it with renewed determination because the president urged me to avoid further vacuum and confusion in government at this critical time."
It is unprecedented for a president to retain a prime minister who has resigned. In a press conference on April 27, 11 days after the ferry disaster, Chung announced his intention to resign and take "all responsibility" for the accident. And Park on May 19 called for broad changes.
Three days later, she nominated former Supreme Court justice Ahn Dai-hee as next prime minister. At the time, Cheong Wa Dae said the new appointment was part of efforts to "reform" government. The presidential office repeated the same line on June 10 after Ahn bowed out over a fees scandal and Park picked the conservative journalist Moon Chang-keuk.
Moon held out for three weeks while critics gleefully picked over his controversial remarks about Korea's relationship with Japan before he too threw in the towel early this week.
Cheong Wa Dae and Park have no one but themselves to blame for getting the public’s hopes up that real reform was imminent. The public were tired of one bungled emergency after another and had been watching keenly what Cheong Wa Dae had in store. Park's decision to retain the prime minister ended up dashing their hopes.
This has raised concerns that Cheong Wa Dae may also backtrack on its pledge to reform the bureaucracy and end corruption in the public sector, which has been cited as one of the causes of the ferry tragedy.
It remains to be seen whether Chung will be able to regain public trust now his U-turn has damaged his credibility.
It is tough looking for a third candidate for prime minister when two have already quit before even facing a confirmation hearing. If the search begins afresh, the post would have to remain vacant until at least August. That would lead to a prolonged vacuum. From this perspective, perhaps it was a good thing to retain Chung.
But Cheong Wa Dae made a mistake by reneging on its pledge to reform government with the appointment of fresh faces. And the decision to retain Chung was made so quickly that it raises questions how serious Cheong Wa Dae really was. Most of all, it appears half-hearted for just the presidential spokesman to announce Chung's retention.
The right thing to do would be for Park to speak to the nation and explain why she had no choice but to keep him.